A-level maths standards have dropped to the point where B-grade students score little better in a basic university test than they would if they were randomly guessing, according to a new study.
The study, which monitored the performance of first-year electronics students at York University in maths tests over the past 15 years, also shows that if today's A-grade students had sat the test 15 years ago, they would have come bottom of the class. The researchers said their findings were replicated in York's physics department.
The findings come just a week after A-level results showing overall pass rates of 96 per cent and record numbers gaining A-grades. They will lend weight to claims that A-levels are no longer the academic "gold standard".
Ken Todd, an electronics lecturer who analysed the figures, said: "It is deeply worrying that an average student with grade B in A-level maths is only able to obtain a score on our test that is marginally better than that which could be obtained by random guessing.
"The long-term picture is very clear: a student with an A at A-level maths today will, on average, obtain a score on our test that would have placed them near the bottom of the cohort 15 years ago."
The study has been published by the Higher Education Academy, the new academic body promoting teaching and learning in universities. It was carried out by Maths Team, a collaboration between the academy's subject centres for engineering, physical sciences and materials education and the Maths, Stats and Operational Research Network.
It examined students' performance on their second day at university in a 50-question multiple- choice test designed to "diagnose" basic mathematical ability and highlight weaknesses that would need special tuition. Among the 50 questions are eight that require only GCSE knowledge.
Average scores on the maths test dropped from 78 per cent in 1985 to just 42 per cent in 2000.
Dr Todd said: "It was always assumed that any students scoring below 60 per cent should receive special tuition. Today the bulk of the cohort falls below that."
Between 1991 and 1998 the average score of a student with an A at A level declined from 70 per cent to 60 per cent, Dr Todd said. B-grade student scores slipped from 62 per cent to 40 per cent.
Dr Todd said: "We have had to radically alter our approach to teaching maths in the past decade - we used to have one person teaching the basics, and now we have six helping students to get up to speed."
- The proportion of students gaining the top A* and A grades at GCSE increased again this year by 0.7 per cent.
The results, announced on Thursday, show an increase in top-scoring students from 16.7 per cent to 17.4 per cent. Overall, 59.2 per cent of students obtained a grade C or above, compared with 58.1 per cent last year.