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Thursday, August 30, 2007

'Easier' science exams

presented by Md Moshiur Rahman sponsored by

Exam boards in England are planning to put more simple questions in science papers, the Times reports

A document seen by the newspaper says that from next year, some papers should consist of 70% "low demand" questions, instead of the current level of 55%.

The document was prepared by the umbrella group of exam boards, the Joint Council for Qualifications.

The organisation denies examiners are being told to make GCSEs easier and says instead, the bar is being raised.

There is concern that fewer students are taking science GCSEs, although there was a small upturn this year.

Simple format

Since 1984, the number of people studying A-level physics has slumped by 57% and the take-up of chemistry has dropped by 28%.

Under the new proposals, exams would contain fewer tough questions requiring detailed answers and more in a simple format, such as asking students to tick a multiple-choice box, the Times said.

The examination will require candidates to demonstrate wider knowledge and understanding to achieve their grades

Jim Sinclair, JCQ

The guidelines amount to a non-binding agreement between the exam boards.

The proposal to increase the proportion of "low demand" questions from 55% to 70% relates to the combined science GCSEs.

Some students take what are known as single or doubles sciences - where the various science subjects are studied individually in greater detail.

In this latter case, the new guidelines suggest raising the proportion of easier questions from 45% to 50%.

Raising the bar

Jim Sinclair, JCQ director, told the Times the proposed changes were a way of stopping children being "turned off" by science.

He says the changes amount to a raising, not a lowering of the bar.

In a statement on Wednesday, he said: "Examiners have not been told to make GCSE science examination questions easier.

"The JCQ made recommendations in 2005 for the better use of the full mark range on examination papers and the widening of the ranges of marks for the lower grades in foundation tier GCSE science.

"Therefore, the examination will require candidates to demonstrate wider knowledge and understanding to achieve their grades.

"It is not a lowering of the bar, rather a raising of the bar since candidates have to engage with and positively respond to more questions than previously."

The JCQ added that there would still be a requirement for students to do "a significant proportion of extended writing" in the GCSE science assessment.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) insisted there were no plans to alter the way the subject was examined.

"We have recently revised these examinations and we have no plans to look at them again," a spokeswoman said.

It's the biggest tension we have got in science education

Derek Bell, Association for Science Education

Exam boards have to have their exam papers approved by the exams watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

A spokesperson said: "The regulators' code of practice, which governs how GCSE qualifications are run, requires awarding bodies to have the prime objectives of maintaining grade standards over time and across different syllabuses.

"The detailed content structure of question papers is a matter for awarding bodies but QCA requires that the standard of work required to achieve a grade C is the same across different tiers and the same as in previous years."

The chief executive of the Association for Science Education, Derek Bell, said there was a need for balance in exam questions.

"It's the biggest tension we have got in science education and in education more generally.

"If you are trying to open access to demonstrate what all students can do, then you have to look at the system of doing it, but on the other hand you have to make sure the higher achievers also reach their potential."

Make science easier, examiners are told

Examiners will have to set easier questions in some GCSE science papers, under new rules seen by The Times. A document prepared by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents awarding bodies across Britain, says that, from next year, exam papers should consist of 70 per cent "low-demand questions", requiring simpler or multiple-choice answers. These currently make up just 55 per cent of the paper.

The move follows growing concern about the "dumbing down" of science teaching at GCSE and grade inflation of exam results, which critics claim is the result of a government drive to reverse the long-term decline in the number of pupils studying science.

In the past five years, the proportion of students gaining a grade D or better in one of the combined science papers has leapt from 39.6 to 46.7 per cent.

The latest move has been condemned by an education expert. Last night Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Education and Employment Research Centre at the University of Buckingham, said: "Deliberately increasing the proportion of easier questions is a clear example of lowering the bar."

He added: "Already, exam questions have become too predictable and this is another example of making exams more user-friendly. Better exam scores are only good news if they stand for corresponding increases in underlying understanding. Putting in more low-demand questions is the sort of change that gives rise to suspicion."

Students taking GCSE scienc have a choice of two tiers, or papers. The foundation tier assesses grades G to C and the higher tier assesses grades D to A*.

The Government claims that exams are structured in this way to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to show what they are capable of without being thrown off course by questions that are too hard or too easy. However, many experts believe that this approach to science leaves some students poorly prepared to pursue the subject at A level.

Although there has been a small upturn in science entries this year, the number of students taking physics A level since 1984 has fallen by 57 per cent, while the take-up of chemistry has dropped by 28 per cent.

For a student sitting a GCSE science paper, the difference between an easier and a harder question might mean being asked the atomic structure of magnesium, instead of more complex elements such as chlorine or titanium.

There are likely to be more "cue-heavy" questions, where pupils are provided with more background information for answers. The new exams also increase the proportion of easier questions in the higher-tier paper from 45 to 50 per cent.

The document says that changes will take effect next June. Although they are not binding, they represent a "gentlemen's agreement" among the awarding bodies, according to the JCQ. Individual awarding bodies may choose to ignore the guidelines.

With this year's GCSE results showing another rise both in overall passes and top grades, there has been much speculation about whether this trend reflects better teaching, brighter students or easier exams.

But Jim Sinclair, the JCQ director, emphatically denied that the changes would lead to a rise in the number achieving grade C - the top grade in the foundation tier. Future results would depend on how the marks were allocated.

Dr Sinclair added that the changes would help to stop children being "turned off" by science.

"Part of the desire is that the student can come out of the exam with a feeling of success that they have actually tackled a significant proportion of the questions, and achieved the best grade expected," he said. "The vast majority of candidates taking this exam are going to achieve grades D to G, and they deserve a positive experience of science.

"They can only have that by being allowed to attempt questions which are at their level . . . It is making exams accessible to candidates." His comments were echoed by Jim Knight, the Education Minister, who said: "There is no such thing as an easy GCSE. Achievement in the single sciences is outstripping other subjects, with attainment in double-award science rising as well. The new science curriculum will build on this."

Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, which represents 15,000 primary, secondary and technical science staff said: "With the introduction of a national curriculum we now have to cater for all students, the whole ability range. In order to make exams reflect that, it involves changes.

"The danger here is that, by changing requirements to match the needs of the wider ability range, what you risk doing is reducing the potential, the overall standard.

"We have to be cautious about bringing about unintentional consequences. We do need to support the lower-ability students. But there is a danger that, in trying to ensure you have access for the majority, you limit the minority."

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