This is a question that's posed regularly each summer when the results of the UK national exams come out. For those who aren't familiar with the UK education system, basically, GCSEs are compulsory exams sat at the age of 16 and A Levels are taken by those who chose to stay at school or go to sixth form college at the age of 18 (although part of the exam is sat at 17). I got to thinking about it and came up with some ideas of my own.
It's doubtless true that a higher percentage of teenagers are getting better grades, especially for their A Levels. When I was at school, it was Hard to get an A or even a B grade at A Level, and about the top 10% got those coveted As. Now it seems to be more like a quarter of sixth formers who are getting top grades and university requirements have no doubt increased in line with the trend. However, does that mean that the exams are easier?
To be honest, I don't think so. I've looked at some A Level syllabuses and they contain the same sort of level and quantity of material as they did when I was in sixth form (1988-90). The main differences seems to me to be twofold:
1) The exams are now modular making top grades more accessible. A Levels used to be taken at the end of a two-year course and all papers were sat within one exam session. If you fluffed those, you could re-take at some point, but you would have to wait until the following summer and re-do the papers for the whole syllabus.
These days A Levels are split into two halves, the AS (Advanced Subsidiary), which is gained during the first year in one or two exam sessions (January and May/June or just the latter) and then the A2 year, which again may mean two lots of exams and leads to the full monty. If you do badly in any earlier examined paper, you can resit it at any time up to the last session in order to improve your overall grade. This means that whole sections of a course are examined and more or less closed within a few months rather than having to revise the whole course for the final exams. Of course, there are synoptic papers taken at the end of the course, but they're no longer all that way.
University courses went modular a short while before A Levels did and I know from my own experience that it makes better grades much more attainable. In the language classes, what you do one years builds upon last year's work, so you can't help but keep up there, but I know I would have struggled with area studies modules had I had to wait until the end of my fourth uni year before taking the exams! (Not because I couldn't do them, but because I've never learned to work consistently, the first 10 years of school being so easy to me, and so would have lost patience with all the revision material!!)
2) The amount of support and revision materials has grown almost exponentially. When I was doing my A Level courses, there were a few printed materials you could buy to revise from, but mostly you had your own notes and nothing else. There weren't really even any set textbooks. Not so anymore! Not only are there coursebooks, even ones based on the exact syllabus you're preparing for, but revision guides abound (again, even some exam board specific titles) and as for the computerised materials, well, to the making of many CD-Roms, DVDs and webpages there is no end! You can even download your syllabus, past papers and marks' schemes from the exam boards' websites! Exam prep right from the examiners!
So, as far as I can see, the exams and the subjects aren't getting easier, it's just that the format is more good grade friendly and printed and computer based support media is just so widely available that you really seem to have to try hard to fail! Even I might pass A Level chemistry these days.....