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There is an interesting trend in test scores in exams (GCSE and A-level) in the UK: they are increasing, or so the trend in the grades would tend to show. This is known as grade inflation and affects other countries, too.

Why is this? I have heard several reasons. The first is that students are just generally getting smarter. The second reason I have heard is that exams are getting easier. To me (as a student), it personally seems like the exams are getting easier, although it is hard to judge. What independent research has been performed to determine if it is exams or students?

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    Don't forget that the nature of the world has changed. No longer do people need to keep a lot of information stored up in their head when they have access to instantaneous resources from anywhere which can tell you these things. Is it a bad thing that ability is now based on intuition and expertise rather than remembering useless things? It frees up a lot of head space. – Chris Dennett May 11 '11 at 22:11
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    @Chris I completely agree. One of the best examples is a programmer with internet access. There is no reason for the programmer to memorize thousands of different functions, algorithms, etc. when he/she can look them up with ease. Thinking ability is a far more important skill nowadays. – jamesbtate May 12 '11 at 4:14
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    False dichotomy. The third alternative is that teachers (or rather, teaching methods) are getting better. Now, this is a known fact, and readily explained through the improvements in the research of didactics. Whether this alone explains the effect is of course another question. – Konrad Rudolph May 12 '11 at 11:38
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    Actually there's many other options: students are putting more time into academics, students study more effectively. There is no reason to believe that the exams mentioned measure smartness. Does knowing which year Richard of York got killed mean you are smarter? I think not. – apoorv020 May 12 '11 at 16:47
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    Thanks for agreeing with me... But, wait! that's the opposite conclusion of my answer! :-) When you have someone sit the tests, you need to be sure there are no cultural biases. My 8 year old niece would unable to pass my grandmother's math's test (If you have £20 and buy 3 items for 6s, how many guineas do you have left?) but would thrash her in the Create A PowerPoint slide section. – Oddthinking Jun 7 '11 at 1:56
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+100

The idea that people are getting smarter in recent years is known as the Flynn Effect after James R. Flynn who promoted the idea.

It is more prominent on IQ tests which are standardised against the population average.

Wikipedia explains:

The only way to compare the difficulty of two versions of a test is to conduct a separate study in which the same subjects take both versions. Doing so confirms IQ gains over time. The average rate of increase seems to be about three IQ points per decade in the US on tests such as the WISC. The increasing raw scores appear on every major test, in every age range and in every modern industrialized country although not necessarily at the same rate as in the US using the WISC.

As well as giving an overview, the Wikipedia page discusses many of studies on the effect, possible causes (including better nutrition) and the theory that it may be slowing down recently.

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    I note with interest the suggested causes, which include nutrition, "teaching for the test", television and computer games, infectious diseases and even less in-breeding! No-one seems to want to give teachers any credit for being better at their job at raising bright children than teachers were three generations ago. I wonder why that is not considered a factor. – Oddthinking Jun 6 '11 at 11:28
  • Because the heritability estimate for intelligence is .50-.80 it's implausible for the whole Flynn effect (2 SDs in ten decades) to be accounted for by environmental influence (e.g. teachers). That's been discussed in the literature a lot too, but maybe this deserves its own question (it's research-level though). It's also not necessarily relevant to the question as teaching-to-the-test probably occurs to a smaller degree with IQ tests than with school tests (Increased output control in the US purportedly led to this). I might flesh this out if I have time, but feel free to beat me to it! – Ruben Jun 6 '11 at 18:45
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    Unfortunately all this is anecdotal but: teaching in my opinion has been forced to be dumbed down, comparing my tests from 25 years ago with today's ones shows that (especially in maths and the sciences) today's contain not only less memorisation, but less initiative and lateral thinking requirements! The system also doesn't cope well with individuals who are ahead of the curve - focusing effort on those behind it - I actually got asked not to let my kids study extra at home! – Rory Alsop May 2 '12 at 9:20
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    An extra data point here – Benjol May 2 '12 at 12:34
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    @dsollen: With the right notable claim, this might make a good Skeptics.SE question. – Oddthinking Aug 26 '15 at 15:08
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Wikipedia has a many a word on this subject eg.

A-level

Between 1963 and 1986 A-Level grades were awarded according to norm referenced percentile quotas (A <= 10%, B = 15%, C = 10%, D = 15%, E = 20%, O/N = 20%, F/U >= 10% of candidates). The validity of this system was questioned in the early 1980s because, rather than reflecting a standard, norm referencing may simply maintain a specific proportion of candidates at each grade. Which in small cohorts can lead to grades only indicating a candidate's relative performance against others sitting that particular paper, and so not be comparable between cohorts e.g If one year only 11 candidates were entered for A-Level English, nationally, and the next year only 12, how can you be sure that the single A awarded in year one was equivalent to the single A awarded in year two. In 1984 a decision was taken, by the Secondary Examinations Council, to replace the norm referencing with criteria referencing, where grades would in future be awarded on Examiner judgement. The criteria referencing scheme came into effect in June 1987, and since it's introduction Examiner judgment', along with the merger of the E and O/N grades, from June 2002, has increased the percentage of A grade awards from 10 to > 25%, and the A-E awards from 70 to > 98%.

similarly:

GCSE

In September 2009 and June 2012, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph respectively reported that teenagers' maths skills are no better than 30 years ago, despite soaring GCSE passes. The articles are based on a 2009 paper by Dr Jeremy Hodgen, of King's College London, who compared the results of 3000 fourteen-year-olds sitting a mathematics paper containing questions identical to one set in 1976. He found similar overall levels of attainment between the two cohorts.[38] The articles suggest rising GCSE scores owe more to 'teaching to the test' and grade inflation than to real gains in mathematical understanding.

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