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Exam regulator Ofqual: science GCSE is dumbed down

posted 26 Mar 2009, 19:06 by Dilwoar Hussain
From The Times
March 27, 2009

GCSE boards must act immediately to improve the quality of science questions in order to stretch and challenge students, the exam regulator said yesterday. It said that the qualification had been dumbed down, with too many multiple choice papers and superficial questions.

A controversial new GCSE in single science, which was intended to make the subject more relevant to teenagers, raised “significant cause for concerns” about standards, Ofqual said.

Many of the multiple choice questions were too easy because the wrong options given were “too obviously incorrect”, it said. There were also too many “short-answer questions that were fairly limited in their requirements or in the scientific content that they addressed”. The GCSE physics paper had replaced the testing of physics concepts with questions about the advantages and drawbacks of CCTV, mobile phones and the internet, it said.

The regulator called for tighter marking criteria to ensure that “only answers deserving of the marks are credited”.

A separate study found a “decline in the standard of performance” in GCSE physics. Papers had got easier because fundamental principles of science were removed from the syllabus.

The reports have reignited a fierce public debate over the nature of science teaching. The new applied single GCSE in the subject, introduced in 2006, aimed to create scientifically literate citizens and ensure that all students got at least a toehold in the discipline by focusing on scientific processes. But purists complain that this approach results in the squeezing out of “proper” science, adding that efforts to make the subject seem relevant and trendy had not attracted more students to it.

Kathleen Tattersall, chairwoman of Ofqual, said: “Our monitoring shows that the revisions to the GCSE science criteria in 2005 have led to a fall in the quality of science assessments.” She added that improvements had been made to exams being set from this year and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was reviewing the GCSE science criteria for courses starting in 2011. “Science is a vitally important subject and it is essential that these new criteria and specifications should engage and challenge all learners, particularly the most able,” she said.

For coursework completed under teacher supervision, which can represent up to a third of marks, standards were too variable, the regulator said. Exam boards should collaborate to ensure that grades were comparable.

On GCSE physics, Ofqual found a “significant reduction in content” from GCSE exams between 2002 and 2007 so that “fundamental explanations of phenomena were not tested”. It added: “Boyle’s law, the use of a capacitor as a timing device and detailed consideration of the optics of the eye and the projector were also removed. The content that was added tended to be concerned with the social implications of technological applications, rather than physics concepts.”

Candidates were required, for example, to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of CCTV, mobile phones and the internet, which “did not add to the candidates’ knowledge and understanding of physics”.

The Schools Minister, Jim Knight, said he was concerned about the findings and wanted to make sure that the most able students were stretched. He added that the Government was investing in measures to increase the numbers of both specialist science teachers and students who can study the triple individual sciences.

Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools Minister, said: “This is a terrible indictment of the Government and the QCA at a time when scientific education has never been so economically vital, and it shows why private schools are abandoning the GCSE.”

Mike Cresswell, of the AQA exams board, said he was disappointed that the regulator did not address the inevitable conflict between the need to create a scientifically literate population at the same time as training world-class scientists.

Richard Porte, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the report confirmed the society’s findings that brighter students were no longer being stretched by the system and candidates were almost walked through the questions. “No fault lies with students or teachers. It is the system that is at fault and that system requires early, radical surgery,” he said.


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