FALLING STANDARDS ? –again ! (First published on Saturday, 15 August 2009)

“There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder”. Ronald Reagan

“Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential” Winston Churchill


Music exams show us an example of criterion-based assessment in action; tasks are set, precise criteria (including for the making of judgements) are laid down, and as many candidates as can achieve this will pass.

In fact as achievements and talents differ, marks vary and traditionally the results fall into four groups (Fail, Pass, Merit, and Distinction – formerly called Honours). Thames Valley University/London College of Music has (to my mind laudably) put in two grades of Fail – a narrow fail and one that is clearly way off the minimum standard. This is helpful as it can show student and teacher what amount of effort is likely to be needed to obtain a pass. It is an excellent example of “customer friendly” examining.

In practice I found that the three grades of success were also really to some extent on the subjective side of the spectrum – the numerical mark was really a refinement of this (a bit like the old Alpha / Alpha plus system). The reasoning was (I think rightly) on the following lines.

At the end of the day what we want from a musical performance is a convincing, moving experience, showing artistic sensitivity by the performer. Such a performance is worth a distinction.

However, a prerequisite of such a performance is an accurate rendering of the score, based on a suitable level of technical competence. Such skill is worthy of a Merit.

It is nevertheless recognised that not all candidates will achieve such a level. Yet their progress should be recognised. A performance containing a certain amount of falling short technically therefore should be awarded a Pass.

There are clearly subjective elements here; the arguments given above apply.

The important thing about all this is that there are no quotas. In practice the percentages fall in the higher grades, because humans tend to grade themselves by what they do. As in all fields, the further you go up the ladder, the more the percentage of people involved declines, as fewer and fewer people have the time, resources, inclination or ability to go on. What percentage of swimmers are willing to put in the hours needed to become an Olympic competitor ?

By contrast, we have been told to expect the imminent collapse of our intellectual life because the percentage of first class degrees has risen (at least in some places) from 7% to 13%. A doubling, yes, but averaging around 10%. Consider it this way. 100% of the population are born. Not 100% even get to school, because some have awful disabilities. They plod on and at 16 many throw in the towel. The same applies at 18, but 50% (roughly) go on to university. More plodding, lots of pressure, “spoon feeding” (see above), many have to work, some have rich parents (7% -? the number in the independent school sector). The end – 10% with firsts. But wait – it’s 10% of the original 50% i.e. 5% of the total age group. Does that seem a high number of unusual intellects in a population ?

This reminds me of a regular gripe I heard at Garnett College of Education – too many students were getting high marks in the Theory (normative again…). I observed always that (a) the majority of our students were graduates – many in Humanities – so had often studied these subjects to a higher level than teacher training required (b) they were highly selected (c) most were highly motivated. So what result would you expect ?

I always assumed during my working life that the First Class degree would typically account for 5 to 10% of the student body. In which case 5% is rather low !

So I decided to check on what those who use the notion of IQ think. (I must admit here to having always been highly suspicious of such measurements, but they are widely accepted and used) The source I found said that 50% of the population have an IQ of 100-110, There were a further 15% up to 120 (which was equated to potential college degree level) and 10% above that. The potential educational level of the latter IQ was Ph.D.

Having admitted to reservations about the IQ measurement process, I am willing to stand corrected on this. But the above does seem to suggest that it would not be strange if, say, 15% of students got a First. If this is so, we can expect further rises. Also it suggests that the system is still in the process of drawing out the potential of students to their theoretical maximum.

Today’s summary: The claim of the critics is that the line at which a First is gained is being moved steadily towards the lower end of the IQ spectrum. But it seems equally plausible that the potential for the current levels of student achievement was always there – but the opportunities were not. Surely a cause for rejoicing, not lamentation ?