Exams hold up under scrutiny

A review by the QCA shows that fears of falling standards are unfounded, but that some exams have become formulaic

STANDARDS AT GCSE and A-level are being maintained though problems were disclosed today with two of England's most popular exam courses.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority issued severe criticisms of English GCSE and psychology A-level, saying the exams had become formulaic.

In psychology, students could gain A grades without showing relevant knowledge, while in English, schools could predict what questions were coming up.

However, the QCA review of seven subjects found unqualified evidence that standards were sliding in only one: music GCSE.

English GCSE has become too predictable, a QCA review team said after looking at exam standards in the period 2002-05. Reviewers found that the use of pre-released reading material in exams and the predictability of many of the reading and writing tasks meant that there were "insufficient unforeseeable challenges" for pupils.

Edexcel's scheme of assessment was singled out as being less demanding than other boards' because its non-fiction assessment tasks were "predictable"

and there was an over-emphasis on the objective that candidates should "read with insight and engagement".

Standards in the exam, however, were maintained. In GCSE science double award, reviewers concluded that syllabuses had generally become more demanding between 2000 and 2005, due to a redesign of question papers and a reduction in coursework. But they also noted a dip in demand where there had been a move towards more modular courses.

Standards were broadly similar between the boards, and there were no major changes in the quality of work achieving particular grades over the years.

Reviewers of the music exams covered a longer time span: 1985-2005. They found that standards at GCSE were "regrettably" less demanding than O-level. This meant that students faced a "very real" leap up to A-level, particularly if they took an Edexcel GCSE, where expectations were lowest.

In A-level psychology, reviewers said that a move to shorter questions, rather than essays, over the years 1997 to 2005 had left the more able struggling to show what they knew. A-grade A2 students "did not show relevant, accurate and detailed knowledge of theories, concepts, studies and methods". Question papers were too often "formulaic".

There were structural problems with the exam so that it could not properly assess students' mastery of knowledge across the subject. And there was "no logical flow" between the AS and A2 sections of the courses. OCR's exams were easiest.

A-level English became more prescriptive between 2000 and 2005, offering less variety in texts studied and less choice in exam questions.

The minimum number of texts to be studied has remained the same, but pupils are now given greater direction in the genres and periods that they must address. Some areas of the syllabus, such as 20th-century prose, were felt to be overrepresented. All set texts were judged to be at appropriate level.

A-grade standards were comparable across the exam boards, and remained unchanged over the five years.

AQA raised the number of pupils given good grades in short course citizenship GCSE last year, after a QCA review of standards found the board's 2005 version of exam papers and coursework were harder than that set by Edexcel and OCR. AQA's version was harder partly because it did not use multiple choice questions.

The boards blamed schools and colleges for the inconsistency of coursework standards in 2005, saying they were not giving students enough time and resources to complete their coursework.

Edexcel and OCR gave out a smaller proportion of good grades in 2006 than in 2005.

Achieving an A grade in French GCSE was easier in 2005 with the Welsh and Northern Irish boards than with their English counterparts AQA and OCR.

There was little difference between boards on the standards needed for a C grade. By 2006, however, the situation had been addressed to even out the difficulty levels between the boards.

There were big differences between the proportions of pupils achieving A grades - 41 per cent did so with CCEA against 23 per cent with AQA. But the regulator said this reflected different pupil ability levels.

The QCA said some issues such as formulaic approaches to exams and a lack of open-ended questions were being addressed through changes to A-levels being introduced next year and GCSEs from 2009.

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