Exam subjects

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
ENGLISH - Cause for concern
ENGLISH - Cause for concern

Intermediate 1 English candidates got a raw deal, with close reading in particular much harder than expected. It involved an account of the Flannan Isles mystery of 1900, when three lighthouse keepers disappeared in unexplained circumstances.

Anne Friel, English teacher at St Columba's High in Gourock, said the passage was about the same length as that used for the equivalent Intermediate 2 paper. Yet while Intermediate 1 candidates had 45 minutes for 17 questions, Intermediate 2 candidates had an hour to complete 18.

There was also concern in the school's English department about vocabulary. One question asked for the meaning of "luridly speculated"; Miss Friel thought this more appropriate to Higher. Phrases such as "nesting fulmars" and "the sense of flight was as penetrating as the mist" also caused problems.

Staff and pupils, however, were content that Intermediate 2, Higher and Advanced Higher had been fair.

Higher candidates did feel one of the passages used in paper 1, "Rural Mania", had failed to spark their interest.

Paper 2 gave all candidates a chance to shine through their critical essays, with plenty of questions that linked to texts studied. Miss Friel pointed to one question that demanded an exploration of love in difficult circumstances, for example, which was an "absolute gift" for pupils who had studied Romeo and Juliet (pictured).

CRAFT DESIGN - How does this work?

This year's Standard grade examination received a glowing endorsement from Jon Stembridge, principal teacher of craft, design and technology at Edinburgh's Drummond Community High. "It was well balanced with a good range of topics, and a fair test of pupils' knowledge," he said.

An image of a child's wooden toy was the starting point for question 6: candidates were required to think in some depth about the processes and tools required to make the toy. "It's a very holistic look at the manufacture of an item," said Mr Stembridge, who was impressed by the number of areas touched on in this single question.

Question 2 in the Credit paper involved the ergonomics of an office chair. This focus on design, said Mr Stembridge, was useful preparation for the product design Higher, which has taken the place of the old craft and design Higher.

Some of the questions in the Foundation paper were presented in a way more suitable for the General paper, although the tasks should have been within candidates' abilities. Mr Stembridge was impressed that Foundation candidates were asked to think about design at times, an area often absent in papers at this level.

MATHS - Add x for difficulty

Some Higher candidates would have struggled with aspects of this year's Standard grade Credit maths paper, according to the acting principal teacher at Edinburgh's Holy Rood High.

Michael Crombie said paper 1 was especially tricky, with question 12 giving most cause for concern. It was a "completing the square" question, made particularly complex by the fact it was not possible to factorise the quadratic set by manual means. "It's more a Higher skill," he said. "I don't think that question was fair - even a well-prepared pupil would struggle with it."

No other question was pitched at such a high level, although paper 1, overall, was found to be more difficult than in previous years - a feeling shared by other maths teachers, who were concerned that the paper's difficulty may have been set too high.

Question 13 was difficult: using the fraction 1724, candidates had to add x to the numerator and denominator, finding the fraction that is equivalent to two-thirds, and solve it for x. Question 10 involved an exponential graph and was a test of knowledge and understanding. "Some candidates at Higher would struggle with paper 1," said Mr Crombie.

Paper 2 presented less difficulty, but "there was a lot going on" in a tan graph used for question 12. "Rather than helping towards the answer, it was possibly quite misleading."

Foundation had "a few sticking points" and candidates felt it was harder than they expected, although Mr Crombie believes it was fair. General was "straightforward enough".

GEOGRAPHY - Demanding but reassuring

Having roughly a third of the marks for the Credit geography exam on the first page might have caused some pupils to panic, suggests Val Vannet, principal teacher of geography at the High School of Dundee. But she felt that, overall, this year's Standard grade papers were very fair.

"By the time they got through the first page, some kids will have panicked, realising they had used a lot of time and still had the rest of the paper to go," she said. "Pages 2 and 5 had questions worth five marks, while the first was worth 28. I wonder if they could have laid it out more sympathetically?"

Nevertheless, this year's Standard grade was one of the fairest she had seen in recent years at every level, with a good balance between human and physical geography.

"General was straightforward. A reassuring paper, with one question featuring a map of Aviemore and the Cairngorms; there's a degree of familiarity about that."

In the past, obscure case studies had thrown pupils, she said: "Sometimes, they see the case studies and don't appreciate that what they are being asked to do is apply their knowledge to a new situation. They think, 'We haven't done that.' Exams have to be demanding, but also reassuring."

The demographic questions were similar in the Credit and General papers, focusing on changing life expectancies.

FRENCH - Listen, it's the best

Pupils sitting the General reading paper would have found the "dense" texts demanding. Overall, however, the French Standard grade was fair, according to Alison Sutherland and Catherine Bachtler, who teach modern languages at King's Park Secondary, Glasgow.

"There was a lot of information to go through in the General reading paper and some of the less-able kids might have found that slightly overwhelming and difficult to access," said Ms Sutherland.

At Credit level, candidates had a mixed reaction to the reading paper, Ms Sutherland found. But she felt the topical nature of the texts - one was about internet shopping and referred to websites such as eBay - would have captured the interest of most pupils.

Both teachers were happy with the listening exams. Ms Bachtler described the Credit paper as the "best listening in recent years". Delivery was good and clear, she felt, and the level of difficulty rose steadily.

"You want the pupils to be tested on a range of topics, but you don't want something obscure that's going to throw them," added Ms Sutherland.

LATIN - Violent games

Despite containing a few "tricky questions", the Credit and General papers for Standard grade Latin were accessible and straightforward, thought Allan Bicket, head of the classics department of Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen.

Pupils would have warmed to question 2(d) in the General reading paper, because it asked their opinion of the crowd's behaviour in the amphitheatre games, with clear analogies to modern-day football matches.

The reading section of the Credit paper, also on the Latin dramatist Seneca, focused on the violent atmosphere of the games. Question 3 was one of a number that asked pupils to give a personal response. They were asked whether they thought their friendship with Catullus would have been strengthened or damaged by his comments about his friend's girlfriend, a question Mr Bicket felt would have created a gender split because boys and girls tend to react differently to Catullus's behaviour.

Mr Bicket liked the translation passages chosen for the General and Credit papers: the former, on the story of Mucius Scaevola (the left-handed), who plunged his right hand into the fire to show his enemies how fearless Romans were; the latter, on the capture by Alexander the Great (pictured) of Darius's family, which contained some tricky sentences, but none unduly difficult for a Credit exam. They were both "doable" in the time allocated, he added.

COMPUTING - This is the modern world

Some teachers may have been caught out by recent changes in the computing studies syllabus for Standard grade, warns Mark Tennant, a computing teacher at Dunbar Grammar in East Lothian.

"The computing course was changed two years ago, and although the Scottish Qualifications Authority warned in the Principal Assessor's report last year that it would be tested robustly in the future, I don't know how much different centres will have adapted what they teach and the amount of time they dedicate to each part. It's quite a busy syllabus," he said.

For instance, teachers might not have concentrated enough time on mobile internet technologies, an area that was touched on in this year's Credit paper in the context of someone working from home.

Mr Tennant felt the whole course was well covered and that the Credit, General and Foundation papers were fair. He was disappointed to see a question about dial-up connections, given that most pupils will now have moved on to broadband. "They should think about catching up with the modern world," he said.

ECONOMICS - One tricky question

The principal teacher of business studies and economics in a Highland school admitted that he would have struggled to answer one of the questions in the Standard grade economics Credit paper.

Nevertheless, Ian Stewart, of Inverness Royal Academy, said overall, the paper covered a wide syllabus well. It made good use of topical issues, such as the use of credit cards in society, "reflecting the concerns of economists and politicians regarding the credit crunch and the ever-increasing value of the UK's unsecured debt mountain".

It also balanced this with "good, old traditional questions" on topics such as the price elasticity of demand; fixed and variable costs of production; and balance of payments.

The only part that "raised an eyebrow" was question 5, on changes in government health policy. "The question talked about people moving abroad, then deciding to return to live in the UK and finding that treatments were no longer available on the National Health Service because of changes in government health policy," he said. "I didn't understand that. I thought, if anything, there are now more treatments than ever available on the NHS. Pupils found it tricky and I'm not sure I could have answered it."

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