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Questions designed to create model citizens

Pisa is attempting to do its bit to shape model 21st century citizens, if the questions used in the science tests over the past six years are anything to go by. Global warming, pollution, threats to biodiversity and the dangers of smoking are among the problems raised for 15-year-olds to consider.

For example, a question set in 2000 asked pupils to look at a diagram showing the effects of carbon dioxide then argue why such emissions should be reduced. The latest test gave teenagers information on wind farms before asking the best places to put them, as well as questions about acid rain.

These are typical of the OECD's approach, with Pisa focusing more on assessing pupils' ability to use their scientific understanding and their appreciation of the scientific method than retaining facts.

In this sense, it has parallels with new GCSEs in science, launched last year, which use scientific issues debated in the media to try to capture students' interest.

By contrast, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey, a rival study to Pisa, which is due to publish results next year, assesses students' retention of scientific knowledge more directly.

Evolution, with its tendency towards sparking debate, is not overlooked by Pisa either. Asked to describe what it is, students ticking "evolution is a scientific theory that is currently based on extensive evidence" were marked correct.

Pisa's science tests do, however, also feature more routine problems, such as questions on the orientation of the earth relative to the Sun affects the length of the day.

Sample questions for maths also feature problems about global warming, alongside other types of question.

All put the onus on lateral thinking, attempting to pose mathematical dilemmas in real-world settings.

Tony Gardiner, a past president of the Mathematical Association, said that, although the intention behind this was welcome, the realism of some of the questions was illusory. Others could not be marked accurately because they were too open-ended for the mark scheme to pick up all responses, he said.

Tops for high-tech, page 18; Russia's read revolution, page 20; Can we rise above, pages 22-23; Leading article, page 28; Alan Smithers, page 28.

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