Exam reviews

28th May 2010 at 01:00


- All four corners of the globe

There was a marked international theme to this year's exams, commented Lasswade High's James Forbes.

Intermediate 1 reading focused on Switzerland, Intermediate 2 listening on England, Portugal and Senegal, and Higher listening on Spain and Australia.

Mr Forbes, who teaches French and German at the Midlothian school, had never seen such an international dimension before. He approved, since languages students tended to have cosmopolitan outlooks and would have been intrigued by such topics.

Higher reading's topic, student debt, was also attractive, given its imminent relevance to university-bound pupils. Higher listening presented few problems, with routine topics such as the pros and cons of holidaying with parents. Directed writing, as usual, had to do with spending time in France, and the absence of a named place this year allowed more room for personal experience.

Mr Forbes rated Intermediate 2 listening "quite demanding", although pupils were given help, for example, by being told that Senegal was an African country.

Intermediate 1 reading made a welcome attempt to appeal to young people through new technology, by framing text about Switzerland within a website, while Intermediate 2 reading was a "wee bit easier" than in the past.

Overall, papers at each level were fair and should have presented few problems to well-prepared candidates.


- Too predictable

The TESS has found, in speaking to scores of teachers over the years, that many are unhappy on behalf of their pupils about difficult exam questions. Content that was not easily foreseen, or that asks candidates to fuse knowledge of different topics, is often deemed unfair.

So Jim Gilliland, principal teacher of Strathaven Academy's technology faculty, stands out when he criticises the Standard grade craft and design exam for being too predictable. Some questions appear to be lifted from past papers, he says, an issue not restricted to this year. Changes are needed, he believes, if Standard grade craft and design is to provide adequate preparation for Higher product design.

"Disappointingly, some questions used this year are those produced cyclically over the years," he said. "This is not necessarily supportive of the quest for assurance of quality, since pupils can memorise these en bloc from past papers. For the future, I would wish to see more scope for lateral thinking - while recognising that more subjective is more difficult to mark."

There were some "new, exciting" questions reflecting recent technological developments, such as one concerning mobile phones. Overall, however, Mr Gilliland found the papers followed long-established patterns. While he conceded this might be "reassuring" on some levels, there was room for improvement in, for example, presentation of images; he would like to see modern desktop publishing being embraced.

Question 5b in the General paper might have been "unsettling" to pupils, since it asked about casting using aluminium - but, unlike other parts of Scotland, this is not permitted in South Lanarkshire due to health and safety.

Overall, the level of difficulty at General, Foundation and Credit was "appropriate".


- Fair and flexible

John Houston from St Mungo's Academy in Glasgow liked Question 1 in this year's Higher product design exam - even if it was worth 30 marks out of the total 70.

"Usually they home in on two similar but individual products, but this year they based the question on a range, which gave pupils more flexibility," said the principal teacher of technical, business and computing studies.

He also appreciated that the Intermediate 2 paper focused on modern products that would be familiar and relevant to pupils: Question 2 discussed an iPod and different designs for docking stations.

Mr Houston liked the format of Question 3, which gave pupils pictures of five products and asked them to identify their commercial manufacturing processes - from a plastic bottle, electrical socket switch, toy van and small wooden seat to a sandwich container. All in all, it was a "more than fair" paper, he judged.


- Please, no more of the same

The easiest question in Section A of this year's Higher drama exam was the first one, according to Jacqui Campbell, head of the faculty of creative arts at Inverurie Academy in Aberdeenshire.

Question 1, in the set texts section, appeared to demand less than the others as it did not specify the need to justify a description of the selected character. The remaining three questions in Section A were appropriately pitched for Higher, but she expressed regret that Question 3 was "almost a mirror image" of Question 4 in last year's paper.

"I worry about something being the same - pupils might be tempted to think such a question was going to appear every time," said Mrs Campbell.

One of the major issues with the Higher drama exam is that it offers insufficient time to candidates to complete all three sections, she argued, and Section C, which examines contemporary Scottish theatre, is part of the problem.

Mrs Campbell would prefer to see that section overhauled, halving the number of questions from a choice of eight to four and widening the theme to one of current productions and issues. By focusing on contemporary Scottish theatre, it favours pupils in the central belt who have easier access to a range of productions than those in the Highlands, she suggests. Contemporary Scottish theatre as a topic might be better served if it were moved from the external exam to a folio submission, she feels.


- No niggles or complaints

Larbert High pupils take Latin for a variety of reasons, explained classics teacher Peter Dunne: some are linguists; others consider it useful for a career in medicine; some are "just curious"; and certain pupils prefer the emphasis on grammar to modern languages' focus on speaking.

The school offers to rejig timetables to accommodate Latin in S1. Those pupils who take up the offer have been known to carry on to exam level, purely because they have enjoyed their early experience.

Mr Dunne, also principal teacher of guidance, had no "niggles or complaints" about this year's Standard grade. Both General and Credit were "quite searching" at times and some of the school's nine candidates found the going tough, but all felt they had given a good account of themselves.

The "clear and unambiguous" language in the Credit interpretation impressed Mr Dunne, as did the encouragement of extensive responses, although he was a little surprised by the "preponderance" of factual questions.

In the Credit translation, dealing with a battle involving Alexander the Great, he approved of "linking" text between excerpts that pointed candidates in the right direction.


- Comprehensive coverage

This year's Higher was a good paper that covered the syllabus comprehensively, said the principal teacher of business and information management at Bearsden's Boclair Academy, Ann Reid.

The compulsory section of Paper 1 (knowledge and understanding) proved most contentious. Three of the five questions came from just one of the seven topics: AS5, which covers customer services.

There was a good variety of topics in the free-choice section. Three questions - dealing with the internet; decisions and information; and training and staff development - were each worth a challenging eight marks, but they were not unfair.

Paper 2, the practical part of the exam, centred around the Commonwealth Games, a familiar topic which Mrs Reid said "helped settle" candidates. They were delighted to find it was not as tricky as the East Dunbartonshire school's prelim, with less reading to get through and no questions seemingly designed to trip them up.


- Right mix and highly topical

This year's Intermediate 2 paper was "spot on", said Amanda Bradley.

The biology teacher at Jordanhill School in Glasgow felt there was the right mix of simpler questions - involving "true or false" choices or circling the correct information - and more demanding material, and a good balance across all the course's elements.

The Jordanhill candidates are often fifth years using the subject as a bridge to Higher biology, while there are also sixth years seeking to broaden their scientific knowledge. Miss Bradley said biotechnology was of "fundamental importance" to modern life, touching on issues such as health, medicine, agriculture and the food industry.

One good question (Section B, 6) brought in genetic engineering and the relative merits of extracting insulin from the pancreas of pigs or bacteria - highly topical, given the growing prevalence of type 2 diabetes related to obesity.

Question 8 in the same section, on experimental design, brought the subject firmly into daily life by asking about the preservation of peas.

There were excellent diagrams, Miss Bradely said, Question 5's depiction of fungal threads on an agar plate being typically clear and informative.

Some pupils might not have known the word "putrefaction" in Question 7c, but this was not crucial to their answers.


- Relevant topics, not penpals

The Foundation paper in this year's Standard grade German exam was "quite challenging" but no more than it should be, said Jennifer Williams, a modern languages teacher at Bishopbriggs Academy, East Dunbartonshire.

The vocabulary in the reading paper was not too easy - a fault of some exams in previous years - and she liked the fact that it departed from the usual idea of writing to a penpal, focusing instead on an online application for a holiday job.

"That's more in line with Curriculum for Excellence - trying to make the topics more relevant," she said.

Pupils found the General reading paper more difficult than the equivalent section in the Credit exam, she found. But if the exam-setters had rearranged the General reading questions, the pupils might have found the paper easier, suggested Miss Williams.

The paper should have started with Questions 3 and 4, instead of 1 and 2. Question 1, asking what Karl Jenisch was responsible for, contained a separable verb, einstellen, she said, which General candidates might not have recognised. The language in Questions 1 and 2 was also specific - in 1 to business and 2 to rugby.

Pupils might have found the General listening paper more manageable if Questions 3-6, which required written responses rather than "tick box"- type answers, had been positioned near the end of the 12-question paper.

Miss Williams liked the health and well-being theme of the Credit reading paper, but she was not sure if all candidates would have coped with the passive voice in Question 2 (it is often not taught until Higher).

The standard of the Credit listening paper was good, she felt - but it is time for the Scottish Qualifications Authority to recognise that youngsters don't have penpals; they have school email partners or buddies.

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