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Scottish Qualifications Authority Exam Papers

Starting today, for the next six weeks, teachers and FE lecturers across Scotland will review and analyse the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam papers their pupils and students have been sitting.

They will discuss exams at a variety of levels - from Standard grade to Intermediate 1 and 2, Higher and Advanced Higher - and cover a range of subjects, from the big-uptake exams such as English and maths to the less popular ones like Classical Greek, philosophy and geology.


Bucking the tradition

Paper 1 of this year's Credit maths Standard grade was trickier than Paper 2, though it is traditionally the other way round, said Robert Jones, principal teacher of maths at North Berwick High.

"There were lots of standard processes in Paper 2, but in Paper 1 pupils had to think a bit harder," he explained.

Questions in the second paper were also more explicit than they have been in the past, he said. Where, for instance, a quadratic formula question had cropped up in previous papers, pupils would have had to rely on clues, such as being asked to give their answer "correct to one decimal point". This time, however, the question stated clearly that candidates should use the quadratic formula to find their answer.

Another question had directed pupils to use the "trial and improvement" method.

"It was nice of them to have made that clear," said Mr Jones.

His only concern lay in the ratio question (Number 9) where the switch from whole numbers into decimals might have caught out some pupils.

His colleague, Alan Cox, felt this year's General paper probed candidates' understanding of concepts more than usual. The "distance, speed and time" question would have required them to understand the process fully. There were fewer "turn the handle"-type questions than recently. All in all, the exam was "on the hard side but not unreasonable", he said.


Exam of two halves

The Standard grade exam in PE is divided into two parts, the first asking pupils to evaluate an activity which is shown in a video, and the second testing their knowledge and understanding.

This year's videos were more professionally produced than in the past, which made it easier for pupils to focus on the activity instead of spending time trying to figure out what was happening because players were in shadow, said Colin Davidson, principal teacher of PE at Lochaber High.

He was also pleased the exam focused on "more mainstream" sports such as rugby, football and swimming, rather than activities like "rhythmic gymnastics" which had left pupils bemused in the past.

"Questions have been wordy, which gives an advantage to those who are strong in English. This year, they were brief and the language was straightforward," he said.

The Foundation paper is generally couched in positive terms, so Mr Davidson was surprised by the negative approach of Question 6, which asked pupils to describe a situation where a player had broken the rules and the referee had to take action.

His only quibble with the General paper referred to the section where pupils were asked to watch the number 12 player in the red team in a basketball match. Because of the way the game was filmed, the player's number was not obvious, although the 12 on his opponent's shirt in the black team was visible.

The Credit exam used the same video as the Foundation paper, although the questions were different. This was a sensible move, he felt, as no pupils would have been sitting both papers, and it would have made the markers' job easier.


At one with emotion

The texts chosen for this year's English Standard grade met with the wholehearted approval of Kathleen Dowds and her colleagues in the English department of St Mungo's Academy in Glasgow.

The Credit paper's text was adapted from a short story, In the Silence by Iain Crichton Smith. "It was very atmospheric and imaginative and we felt it would have engaged the pupils," said Mrs Dowds, principal teacher of English.

"At the same time, we thought the questions were quite testing, which is a good thing. We thought this year's Credit was more demanding than last year's. A lot of the questions were on imagery, sentence structure and word choice, which are all important for pupils sitting Credit, to build them up for Higher."

The text for the General paper was a magazine article on chimpanzees at Edinburgh Zoo, which Mrs Dowds thought would have been accessible and of interest to most pupils.

Most were "understanding"-type questions, although there were also a few "inferential" ones which required candidates to work out feelings and ideas. "At that level, it was fine," she said.


Mapping it out

Questions about the London Olympics and a natural disaster in Haiti made this year's Standard grade geography exam relevant and topical, said Liz McGlashan, president of the Scottish Association of Geography Teachers.

However, the techniques questions, which ask pupils how they would gather information on field trips, continued to be artificial and pointless, she said: "These are often rote-learned, rather than understood."

Overall, the General and Credit papers were "fair" with a lot of "good, solid geography" in them, said Ms McGlashan, depute head at Dalkeith High, Midlothian.

The map question at the beginning of the General paper, about glaciation in the Lake District, was of a good standard and in the Credit paper, the human map of Dunfermline and Rosyth provided candidates with variety, she said. The different scale meant it was clear.

The Credit paper might have confused some pupils by having two questions on one page when the norm is just one. This also resulted in a question being pushed onto the back page of the booklet.

Ms McGlashan's only other complaint was that the Credit paper concentrated a lot on population, with questions on population growth, distribution and desertification.


Keeping to the topic

All three papers in this year's Standard grade administration exam offered a good coverage of topics, according to Neil McMichael, principal teacher of business studies at Blairgowrie High, Perth and Kinross.

He particularly liked the structure of the General paper. Question 2, which was a problem-solving one in four parts, might have been testing for some pupils but was nevertheless fair and would have separated the good students from the less able.

The Credit paper was straightforward and "less wordy" than in some recent exams. In the past, pupils had sometimes been left wondering what the question actually meant. This should not have been the case this year, said Mr McMichael.

Tech studies

Credit where it's due

Ian Bell, principal teacher of craft, design and technology at Edinburgh's Boroughmuir High, could find little to fault in either the Credit or General papers in this year's technological studies Standard grade. If anything, this year's exam was "fairly easy".

"The Credit paper was such that a candidate who was performing well at General would have had a good chance of attaining a Credit pass out of it," he said.

Only a minimal amount of calculation was required in the Credit paper and, personally, he thought there should have been more. But it covered all the areas and led well into the Higher course.


Best of three

The Italian Standard grade exam was fair at all three levels - Foundation, General and Credit - said Pauline Hulme, a modern languages teacher at Douglas Academy in East Dunbartonshire.

The Foundation paper had a reasonable range of vocabulary, its questions were self-explanatory and its layout was good, she said.

Compared to recent years, the General paper was relatively easy, with pupils saying that even the listening section was accessible and the vocabulary not too testing.

She was slightly surprised that the reading section in the Credit paper contained only three questions; both she and her pupils had expected at least four.

Her pupils came out of the exam saying they had found it quite easy but this was probably because she had given them past papers for exam preparation, she said; they were definitely more difficult than recent exams have been.


Pitched at the right level

The Standard grade chemistry General paper has been too easy in recent years, but this year it was pitched at the right level, said one principal teacher.

"That's a good thing in my opinion. I'd like chemistry to remain a difficult subject," said Barry McBride, principal teacher of chemistry and physics at Bellshill Academy in North Lanarkshire.

Question 1 in the multiple-choice section was "incredibly easy" - pupils could find all the information required in the data booklet. But the paper got tougher and questions 5 and 9 might have tripped them up, particularly when they were asked about the size of atoms, which is not covered in the course.

The Credit paper was "tough but fair", he claimed. Tricky questions included Question 3, which asked pupils for the number of neutrons when they were more accustomed to being asked for the number of protons and electrons.

Question 10 was about polymers and was straightforward if pupils got past the "terrifying" chemical name, but Question 14 was "really tough", he added.

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