LETTER:Exam standards: compare and contrast

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The Independent Online
From Ms Pamma Baker Cassidy

Sir: Following the GCSE results last year, the A-level results this year and, perhaps, the GCSE results to be released on Thursday, the improved pass rate has been devalued by claims that exam papers are now easier.

Could this be true? I searched through my file of English Literature past papers. Look at these examples:

"The reader of A Passage To India does not need to know what happened in the Marabar Caves." Do you agree? (Oxford 1986.)

"We really do not know what happened in the Marabar Caves." Does it matter? (Oxford 1991.)

Discuss the significance of views about marriage in Mansfield Park. (London 1982).

"Mansfield Park demonstrates quite clearly Austen's low opinion of marriage in general." Does your own reading lead you to agree? (Oxford 1992)

No one could claim the later questions are easier and, in these past papers from two boards, I can find many such parallels.

Compare these two questions:

How well, and for what purposes, does Chaucer use visual detail in his portraits of the pilgrims? (Oxford A-level 1992.)

Show how Chaucer describes people's appearances in order to bring out their characters. (Oxford O-level 1980.)

The O-level question defines the area of the answer, depending mainly on knowledge of content; the A-level version requires the candidate to create a range of definitions, and to exercise literary judgement.

The new GCSE literature papers, largely "open book" papers, require far more than recall of the contents. Only low marks are offered for recounting the events of a text, often required in the old O-level papers. As an example:

Give an account of the ways the children tried to make contact with Boo Radley. How did Scout finally meet him? (Oxford 1982.)

Jem's and Scout's response to Boo Radley becomes gradually more complex as the book progresses. Explain the causes of this, and how they reflect the differences between Jem and Scout. (Midlands Examining Group specimen paper 1994.)

I cannot believe that English literature is the only subject that we can prove has become no easier; perhaps politicians and public figures need to look at past papers before they belittle today's candidates and their successes.

Yours faithfully,

Pamma Baker Cassidy

Silverstone, Northamptonshire

20 August