Horses for Courses

One of the main purposes of the original A level examination was to identify the relatively small (around 5%) of the population who were suited to studying for an academic degree at university. Back in the 1950s and 60’s one was expected to absorb a general understanding of one’s subject and to be prepared to answer almost any question on any aspect of the syllabus. Although the total number of marks available per question was given, there was no further indication of the more detailed mark-scheme.

These days, in order to achieve higher numbers of students gaining ‘good’ grades, examination questions have tended to become more predictable, and teaching more narrowly focused on those specific topics that are always asked about, and on examination technique.

So today’s news item about an ‘unfair’ exam paper makes interesting reading, in that pupils have complained that it did not include:

“a significant amount of the current specification and gave questions which were not akin to the specimen papers provided, and other questions of such an obscure nature, that it was extremely difficult to decipher what was necessary to gain the marks.”
Was this a deliberate attempt to set a more rigourous paper that would more readily identify the strongest academic students, or a mistake of some sort by the exam board? Will the final grades be ‘fudged’ in some way to match current pass rates? Should these students be taking some other more appropriate form of examination?

Whatever, what we really need are a range of high-status examinations that are suitable for academics and for the majority who think and learn differently.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, ‘horses for courses’ is:

“a mostly British expression urging someone to stick to the thing he knows best. The phrase dates back to 1898, and comes from the horse racing world, where it is widely assumed that some horses race better on certain courses than on others.” (From “Encylopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson)

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