Would the real gold standard please step forward?

Debate about public examination standards has been a consistent feature of educational assessment in Britain over the past few decades. The most frequently voiced concern has been that public examination standards have fallen over the years for example, the so-called A-level ‘gold standard’ may be slipping. In this paper we consider some of the claims which have been made about falling standards and argue that they reveal a variety of underlying assumptions about the nature of examination standards and what it means to maintain them. We argue that, because people disagree about these fundamental matters, examination standards can never be maintained to everyone's satisfaction. We consider the practical implications of the various coexisting definitions of examination standards and their implications for the perceived fairness of the examinations. We raise the question of whether the adoption of a single definition of examination standards would be desirable in practice but conclude that it would not. It follows that examining boards can legitimately be required to defend their maintenance of standards against challenges from a range of possibly conflicting perspectives. This makes it essential for the boards to be open about the problematic nature of examination standards and the processes by which they are determined.

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