03 August 2010

Falling Standards?

There seems to be a widespread belief in places such as Brunei, Singapore and virtually everywhere that standards in English are falling, and something urgently needs to be done to correct this disastrous trend. In fact, the same concern is found in the UK. But is there any actual evidence that standards are falling?

Have a look at the following headline, from The Guardian dated 3 August 2010 (here), discussing recent results for Sats, the standardised tests administered in British schools. First note that the main headline, which proclaims that standards are falling, seems to conflict with the sub-headline, the first part of which suggests that things are actually improving:Let us consider the claim that standards are falling a bit more. The article actually says that the proportion of children leaving primary school in England with a reading ability appropriate to their age group has slipped from 16% to 14%, but at the same time the proportion of those with a reading ability better than expected has increased from 47% to 51%. In other words, more students are failing, but also more students are excelling, and the change in the latter percentage is actually greater than the former.

This indicates a mixed picture. It suggests that there is an increasing divide between those who are doing well and those who are not. But a simplistic conclusion that standards are dropping seems a blatant misrepresentation of the facts.

Why do journalists always like to focus on bad news? And why is there such a persistent belief throughout the world that standards are falling?