Dumbing down row starts now

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Two years ago, The TES carried a warning from leading private school heads and a senior examiner about plans to make exams easier to mark.

Jonathan Ford, the former managing director of the National Assessment Agency, had floated proposals to break papers down into smaller sections, some of which could be marked electronically.

The senior examiner warned that exams would be dumbed down. Multiple-choice questions would be favoured, he said, regardless of their educational value, as they are easier to mark.

Critics will say that this is exactly what has happened with the advent of GCSEs where the entire externally-assessed section is to be multiple-choice, or "objective tests", checked by computer.

The new core science exams, from AQA and Edexcel, are also significant in being the first major GCSEs where pupils will have the option of sitting some tests at a computer screen.

This offers several potential advantages and seems sensible given the ubiquity of technology in the workplace.

But it is the emphasis on multiple-choice that will grab most attention.

Traditionally, England's GCSE and A-levels system has avoided giving too much weight to such assessments, which are popular in the United States, instead favouring essays and open-ended questions.

But does multiple-choice equal dumbing down? Not necessarily. Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at King's college, London, said questions could be made extremely difficult.

New entrance tests in law and medicine for some of England's top universities include substantial multiple-choice sections, alongside essays.

Sample problems (see right) for the new GCSEs include some which are, arguably, comprehension exercises, but others which test scientific knowledge.

Potentially, the most serious accusation is that the new tests cannot possibly assess some elements that are central to the study of science.

For example, the national curriculum says that, at key stage 4, pupils should be taught to "use a wide range of scientific, technical and mathematical language". AQA's syllabus for the new exams says that, to get a grade A, students should show they can "use technical vocabulary and techniques with fluency, clearly demonstrating communication and numerical skills".

It is difficult to see how this can be clearly demonstrated through multiple-choice tests and coursework that will involve pupils answering questions about investigations they have carried out.

The other big issue is how anyone can be sure that standards are being maintained, when multiple choice has previously been, at most, one element of GCSE science.

Pupils are also being offered many attempts at both the tests and the coursework. It looks as if the exam's rules are making it easier for them to do well, even if the questions themselves do not.

If that is the case - and again, it is impossible to be certain yet as grade boundaries could rise to compensate - employers and universities are entitled to question whether the qualifications have been devalued. The fact that this new system allows boards to cut costs also invites scepticism.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has yet to finally approve these exams. Questions about these GCSEs, and the exam industry as a whole, are likely to continue.

Leader 22

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

COMPOUND QUERIES

Questions similar to those to be set for chemistry 1a in AQA's main science GCSE

QUESTION ONE

Alloys often have more useful properties than pure metals.

1.1 Mixtures of metals arecalled . . .

A alloys.

B catalysts.

C compounds.

* ores.

1.2 One metal mixed with iron to make stainless steel is . . .

A aluminium.

B calcium.

C chromium.

* potassium.

1.3 Low carbon steel is . . .

A easily shaped.

B hard.

C resistant to corrosion.

* resistant to staining.

1.4 Smart alloys . . .

A can adapt to new situations.

B can easily be bent.

C can resist most chemicals.

* can return to their original shape after being deformed.

QUESTION TWO

Use words from the list to complete the sentences.

A Condense

B Evaporation

C Fractional distillation

* Fractions

The many hydrocarbons in crude oil may be separated into (1) , each of which contain molecules with a similar number of carbon atoms, by (2) of the oil and allowing it to (3) at a number of different temperatures. This process is called (4)

Source: AQA.

Answers:Question 1: 1.1: A; 1.2: C; 1.3: A; 1.4: DQuestion 2: 1: D; 2: B; 3: A: 4: C.

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