Exam results are not unbelievable: today’s children really are smarter, argues Gary Thomas

We are getting faster, stronger, healthier and better informed, Gary Thomas argues: why shouldn’t exam results improve?

August 15, 2013

August is a dry time for newspaper editors, but until last year’s unexpected fall in top A-level grades, they could at least rely on annual warnings of grade inflation and exams getting easier. When last summer brought the first fall in the proportion of pupils achieving the top grade for 21 years, The Daily Telegraph described this as “cause for celebration”.

Are year-on-year improvements unfeasible, or are they an inevitable consequence of a wider phenomenon? As Frank Spencer so memorably described it to Betty: “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”

Frank was right, but his maxim is more than a self-help anodyne. Last year in the New South Wales school athletics championships, a 12-year-old boy, James Gallaugher, ran the 100m in 11.72 seconds. A century ago at the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, this would have comfortably secured him the gold medal over the actual winner Thomas Burke (US, 12.0 seconds). If we could time travel, today’s boy – not yet shaving – would beat the 1896 Olympic champion.

Gallaugher’s extraordinary sprint is easy to explain: children are better fed, taller, healthier and have access to superior facilities and coaching; running shoes are wonderfully improved; and tracks are made of high-grip material rather than cinders. These advances profit from a century’s research into physiology, materials science, psychology and nutrition.

And improvements are not just physical. Over several decades a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Flynn effect” (after psychologist James Flynn) has been recorded and studied. It refers to the increases in IQ that have occurred for as long as intelligence tests have existed. Are these attributable to actual improvement in IQ or to the testing regime becoming easier?

The answer here is quite straightforwardly provided, because the questions and tasks in intelligence tests stay the same year after year, to be adapted only infrequently. Because of this constancy in tasks and questions, plus rigidly controlled methods of administration and scoring, we can look for patterns of improvement or deterioration. The finding? Improvement is unequivocally happening.

The ‘Flynn effect’ (after psychologist James Flynn) shows that increases in IQ have occurred for as long as intelligence tests have existed

The unvarying average IQ of 100 is a bit of an apparition in this respect: it is a sleight of hand, a construct of the work of psychometricians, who beaver away to sustain the figure by restandardisation. The marking regimes have to be continually reconstructed to bring the average back to 100. This has to be done because our abilities are indeed getting better all the time.

This leads me to GCSE grades, A-level scores and ever-improving degree results. The argument that steady improvements are attributable to grade inflation is part of the narrative that rubbishes schools, universities and colleges. And it is part of the putative solution to resort to the “comparable outcomes” used by Ofqual (norm-referencing in anyone else’s language, and a variant of the psychometricians’ IQ restandardisation) in order to ensure, as happened last year, that results don’t continue to go up.

No doubt there is some element of grade inflation. But my guess is that most of the improvement in exam results is down to the factors that are likely to explain the Flynn effect, with the notion of grade inflation masking recognition that real progress is happening.

Improvement occurs because so many more tools for thinking and learning exist now and because of better teaching in schools: young people have access to technology, experiences and lessons of which previous generations could not even dream.

The new world of today’s kids bubbles over with information and ideas. It dazzles by contrast with the grey world in which I grew up. While for me Crackerjack offered the creative highlight of the week, for today’s youngsters getting home from school, the world fizzes with ideas as they sit down at their machines. They have instant access to a cornucopia of concepts and facts. In such rich soil thinking blossoms. Kids write and communicate in a dozen different ways: no wonder they are getting smarter.

And schools are better: not only are classes smaller but youngsters are encouraged to think where once they would have been drilled in handwriting. Teaching is improving all the time: today’s teachers are better educated, understanding the ways children learn and cultivating methods, teaching styles and curricula best suited to those in their charge. The differences between schools today and those of my generation are huge.

In everything we do we strive to improve, so it would be very odd if things didn’t get better. From aeroplanes to computers to running speeds – they all improve and we are not surprised. So why do some people get so indignant when we see the same thing happening in exam results?

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