Friday, August 20, 2010

Today is the first day of the rest of your life

Yesterday British teenagers learned their A-level scores. This is a HUGE deal in the UK. These scores determine what university a student will go to, what they will study, and even whether or not they may attend university. They're kind of like American SATs, except they're subject specific and they're pretty much the only scores universities consider (no GPAs, no community service, no interest in the "whole student.").

The philosophy of education in the UK is very different than in the US, though I do see the US heading down this route the more people talk about national tests and teacher standards. The best way for me to show the difference is a conversation I had once with one of my co-workers about studying high school French:

"But if you don't get an A-level in French," she said, "How do you know how good you are at it?"

"You still get a grade for your class," I said.

"But what if your teacher's biased? Or incompetent?" she said. "How do you know you really understand French?"

"I guess if you can read French and speak French, then you really understand French," I said.

"But how will a university know that?" she said.

Keren David has written an excellent post for her blog about how, contrary to popular opinion, poor A-level scores do not have to ruin your life. Highly relevant for every one, I think, even non-Brits!


  1. What a fascinating glimpse. I chuckled at your co-worker's response: "But how will a university know that?" She makes a good point.

  2. Wow. So different than in the U.S.! Over here, though, sometimes colleges seem to admit by whim, which is frustrating for the kids with top-notch scores and grades when they wind up facing rejection.

  3. Thanks, Andrea. Yes, my co-worker was absolutely right. It's just a different way of looking at education, more focused on standards and measurement than potential and learning for the sake of learning.

    And to be fair, when I went to college, I did have to sit down and take an exam so the college could know how much German I knew... but it was to determine which class I would take in the sequence, not whether or not I was allowed to study German.

    Yes, I think that's the downside, Ara. The system here is much more streamlined and organized and there is a national clearing house to place students in universities, though of course the universities get the ultimate say-so. But can you imagine if you were sick the week of the tests and bombed them? I guess it's impossible to be completely fair either way.