LONDON — After years of complaints about declining standards for high school exams, the British government has made them harder to pass: The latest results show the first drop in the passing rate in three decades. And in a nation where education has long been a political battleground between progressives and traditionalists, the changes are an emphatic victory for the old school.
Results for English 18-year-olds, released last week, showed that 52.4 percent earned the highest grades this year, down from 52.9 percent in 2013. And after 30 years of steadily climbing passing rates for the A-level test, which determines university entrance, the figure dropped slightly this year.
On Thursday, thousands of English 16-year-olds got their results for a different exam, called the General Certificate of Secondary Education. The test is normally taken by 16-year-olds, but younger students have been taking parts of it a year early, knowing that they can repeat it if they do poorly.
However, because of a rule change discouraging early test taking, fewer students took the test this year than in 2013. Because fewer younger students took the test, there was a small statistical rise in the percentage getting passing grades in Thursday’s results. But as with the 18-year-olds, a smaller proportion of the younger test takers got the very highest grades.
At schools around the country, 16-year-olds gathered Thursday morning for their results, emerging elated, relieved or in some cases in tears.
One student said in a Twitter post: “Today is results day and I feel like laughing, crying and throwing up everywhere I’m that nervous.”
Critics have long derided falling educational standards, often blaming them on “trendy” teaching methods. Parts of the tests for 16-year-olds, though subject to external checks, were sometimes graded by their own teachers. And if students failed, they could simply retake them.
The revised tests cover England only; Scotland has a separate educational system, and school policies in Wales and Northern Ireland are set by regional politicians.
The changes reflect broader fears that a country that created some of the world’s most famous schools has sacrificed academic rigor to equal opportunity.
Along with other Western nations, the British government frets that its teenagers compete poorly with rivals in rising Asian nations, particularly in science and math.
Despite worries about the speed and scale of change, few dispute its need. In 2012, a parliamentary committee concluded that confidence in examinations had been undermined by criticism from universities and employers and by what it called “years of grade inflation.”
Internationally, Britain ranks near the middle. It came in 26th for math and 23rd for reading out of 65 nations and regions taking part in a 2012 study of 15-year-olds conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Top slots were taken by Asian countries in the tests, known as the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.
In announcing the exam changes last year, Michael Gove, then the secretary of state for education, said they were needed to help English students “compete with the best in the world.”
England is hardly alone among European countries in worrying about slipping standards, according to a report by the Oxford University Center for Educational Assessment. When Norway, which spends generously on schools, was ranked below average in an earlier study, it produced “PISA shock,” the report said.
“This led to newspaper headlines in the Norwegian press such as ‘Norway is a loser,’ ” added the report. It also noted criticism of the French government for using international comparisons “to justify its system reforms in recent years, with exaggerated statements to the media about France’s standing in the surveys.”
In England, academics say, easier examinations were the result of worries that too few students were pursuing a higher education.
In 1980, 14.9 percent of secondary school graduates in England passed the college-level test in two or more subjects, and 12.7 percent went on to universities.
But by 2011, 35.5 percent of graduates had passed the A-level test in two or more subjects, and 35.9 percent went on to to pursue a higher education.
“There was a need to pass more students to have the basis for getting into university,” said Alan Smithers, director of the Center for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University.
Politics also played a part. “The previous government said it would be judged by progress in education, so there was a vested interest in results going up and up,” Mr. Smithers said. After the recent changes, he said, England should get results of more use to universities and employers “that ought to tell people apart more accurately.”
Also, a preoccupation with “teaching to the test” may have led teachers to game the system, experts said.
“Exams have come to form their own currency, which is disconnected from learning and the classroom environment,” said Jo-Anne Baird, a professor of educational assessment at Oxford University’s Department of Education.
She said there was widespread concern about falling standards but believed that the current government “has a nostalgic view about reform of education.”
Professor Baird thinks it is a mistake, for example, to curtail the right to retake exams. “It’s really important to foster resilience — anyone who is successful will tell you about how they came back after a knock-back,” she said.
The political and ideological divide over education means that the system is in constant flux, she noted. “We tend to run around without thinking strategically what we want for the long term,” she said. (BBC)