`Devastating' biology exam under the microscope

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
New Higher paper leaves pupils in tears and staff `visibly shaken'

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has been hit by complaints about the new Higher biology exam, with one headteacher describing the experience as "utterly destructive".

Pupils were reportedly left in tears by the test and schools protested that the content veered too far from that of the specimen papers.

Teachers called for assurances that pupils at schools that had pushed ahead with the new Higher would not be disadvantaged. The SQA responded by promising that no student would suffer if the level of difficulty was found to have been misjudged.

East Ayrshire Council head of education Alan Ward said that several headteachers had raised concerns with him, which he would be passing on to the SQA.

Kilmarnock Academy has also lodged its own complaint. In a letter to the SQA, headteacher Bryan Paterson writes: "The disparity between advice and specimen papers previously issued and the content of the final exam has.caused much distress in my school, with many of my students in tears."

One teacher was "visibly shaken" after the exam and Mr Paterson described it as "an utterly destructive experience for all".

He told TESS that he had never seen an exam paper where there was such a gap between official preparatory materials and the actual content.

"I have no gripe about a paper which is challenging, but this paper goes way beyond that," he said.

Mr Ward said he was aware of authorities around the country that had raised similar concerns about differences between the final paper and the practice materials.

Leap in content

According to some teachers, one question in particular could not be answered, no matter how much preparation a pupil had done, and one headteacher said the new Higher was a "huge" leap from the National 5 exam that candidates sat last year.

Another headteacher believes pupils would have struggled with aspects of the exam, no matter how well prepared they were. "It basically didn't follow any of the exemplars given by the SQA," he said. "Staff were downcast because the kids had worked really, really hard."

The exam showed that standards of quality assurance from subject to subject were not as high as they have been in the past, the headteacher added.

New and old Highers across all subject areas are running in parallel this year, and many schools have decided to continue with the existing exams (see panel, left). From next year, only new Highers will be offered.

There were also concerns among teachers around Scotland that the new biology paper contained a large amount of content that seemed more appropriate for a maths exam. A number of students took to Twitter to make similar complaints.

"Why was the Higher biology exam like 85 per cent maths? I didn't spend three hours studying photosynthesis for this," a student said.

"Hopefully a lot of people failed higher biology so the SQA know it was a silly exam to give to us. I took biology not maths," another added.

`No learner will be disadvantaged'

An SQA spokesman confirmed that "no learner will be disadvantaged should it be deemed that the Higher biology question paper was more demanding than intended".

The paper had been "developed and quality assured using the same design principles and assessment specifications as the Higher biology specimen question paper and the Higher biology exemplar question paper, under the supervision of the same senior appointee", he said.

The spokesman added: "As part of our post-examination procedures, the pass mark and the cut-off score for each grade are determined after detailed consideration of quantitative and qualitative information.

"In addition, the difficulty of the question paper compared to previous years' papers is taken into account."

Jack Jackson, a Scotland branch committee member of the Society of Biology, said the new Curriculum for Excellence syllabus for Higher biology was "well constructed" and that the old Higher had been "in significant need of reform to reflect rapid developments that have taken place in biology".

"The content of the CfE Higher biology is not significantly different from the revised version which has been taught in a few schools over the last two to three years," added Professor Jackson. But he acknowledged that not many schools had switched to the revised version.

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