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Fewer pass high school exams, and some in England cheer

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.

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.

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, referring to the Program for International Student Assessment tests.

“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.

—Stephen Castle, The New York Times

Family Dollar rejects takeover bid by dollar general

Family Dollar Stores on Thursday rejected an $8.9 billion takeover bid from Dollar General, citing “significant antitrust issues” related to that offer.

Instead, Family Dollar is holding firm to its earlier $8.5 billion merger deal with Dollar Tree, a smaller competitor in the deep-discount retail space.

The move sets up a potentially bruising battle for control of one of the country’s biggest dollar discount stores, as retailers seek to cater to America’s working poor. Raising antitrust as an issue — as opposed to simply objecting to the price — suggests that the target company plans to resist, since that defense could hurt any combination of the two down the road.

In its announcement on Thursday, Family Dollar brushed aside accusations by Dollar General that its chief executive, Howard Levine, was uninterested in a deal because he might lose his job. Instead, it focused on what it described as unacceptable antitrust risk from putting together two of the biggest dollar stores in the country.

—Michael J. De La Merced, The New York Times