Exam subjects - Your verdict on SQA exams

22nd May 2009 at 01:00
Starting today, for the next five weeks, teachers and FE lecturers across Scotland will be reviewing and analysing the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam papers their pupils and students have been sitting

They will discuss exams at a variety of levels, starting at Standard grade, including Intermediate 1 and 2, Higher and Advanced Higher.

The start of exam season has seen debates over declines in some subjects and rises in others. SQA figures suggest that while some modern languages at Higher have seen a drop over the last five years - notably German, down from 1,700 entries to 1,300 - Italian is showing an increase, from 200 to 300, as is Spanish, from 1,000 to 1,300. There have been increases in the numbers of entries for Urdu (introduced at Higher in 2008 when 50 candidates took it, and this year up at 60) and next year, Highers in Mandarin and Cantonese will be offered.

Biology, chemistry and physics are stable in their uptake, says Gill Stewart, SQA's director of qualifications development. Human biology has seen significant increases (3,400 to 4,200) while "managing environmental resources" has gone from 60 entries to 140.

Within social subjects, there have been no significant fluctuations in numbers for the traditional subjects. Interest in psychology has gone up tenfold, from 300 to 3,100 entries, while sociology has risen from 600 to 900.

In ICT, entries for information systems have dropped from 2,500 to 1,500, but a number of other awards are due to come onstream, offering greater diversity. Awards in computer games development will be available next year to dovetail with HNCs and HNDs in the subject. The SQA is also developing a suite of innovative units, at SCQF levels 4-8 (Intermediate 1 to HNC) in digital culture, covering topics from blogs to wikis.

Meanwhile, the migration from Standard grade to Intermediate 1 and 2 continues apace: entries for Higher are up from 162,000 last year to 170,000 this year, and at Advanced Higher from 18,000 to 20,000.


Too much non-maths content

Standard grade maths is poor preparation for Higher because the exam is too easy, according to Grant Macleod, principal maths teacher at Lomond School in Helensburgh.

In this year's Standard grade maths exams there was "too much hand- holding" and "no real reasoning questions", he said.

"They are all short or broken up into part A, B and so on. If you do that, it means you are asking questions that prompt the answer."

Reasoning questions this year were worth a maximum of four marks, while in the 1990s they would have been worth between four and eight. He also objected to the amount of "non-mathematical content, which "took up 22 per cent of the total marks in both (Credit) papers, which is quite a bit when it's meant to be a maths exam."

He concluded: "At Higher, there is more reading. They have to interpret what's going on and think what maths is being used. If they don't get a grade 1 at Standard grade, pupils are not passing Higher."


Not in their vocabulary

Pupils felt they could have sat the Standard grade Greek interpretation paper without studying, according to one teacher.

Too many questions focused on pupils' feelings and opinions as opposed to examining the actual texts, said Vic Hadcroft, head of classics at the Glasgow Academy.

"Pupils were critical of the type of questions asked," he said. "Some of them are bright enough to realise their personal opinion does not matter when dealing with works of literature that are 2,500 years old."

One "pointless" question asked pupils if the argument between Creon and Haemon in Sophocles's Antigone painted a convincing picture of an argument between a father and son. "Arguments today are not about whether a dead relative should be buried or not. Often, you can't impose 21st-century morality or views on something written so long ago according to a trend and genre."

The General exam's interpretation paper was guilty of asking similar opinion-based questions, he continued, while the translation section simply required pupils to look at the words on the word list and string them together. "It was about people suffering a famine and taking their minds off their hunger by inventing games. There were words on the list like dice, knucklebones and draughts - words you might not come across after 20 or 30 years of reading Greek."

However, pupils enjoyed the Credit translation, Mr Hadcroft said. "It was about Alexander the Great attacking a city. That's the kind of vocabulary they are bombarded with and are familiar with."


`Scorpion-like' question

Economics is the most important subject by far in school, believes Ian Stewart, principal teacher of business studies and economics at Inverness Royal Academy.

It is, therefore, a matter of regret that dwindling numbers of pupils are taking it, he says, although he admits bias.

This year's General paper contained some "nicely topical" questions, such as the necessity for flood defences (presumably due to global warming) and the difficulties faced by people moving from the old "planned" economies to mixed economies. Question 3, on the Government's finances, covered taxes, spending and, topically, borrowing, he said.

The Credit paper was unusual in that it did not include any questions on demand and supply or international trade. All the questions were clear and fair, with the possible exception of the last one.

This, said Mr Stewart, was on alternative energy, which had a "scorpion- like" question on social benefits for six marks, and two on social and economic costs for a further six marks. "Twelve marks is a lot for Standard grade, but it was still a good `high tariff' combination of questions which would challenge candidates," he said.


Ticked all the boxes

The General level reading paper in Standard grade was "very well supported" with lots of "tick boxes" and "filling-in" names, said Amanda Mori, a modern languages teacher at Dalziel High in Motherwell.

With topics covering the American actor Chad Michael Murray (from TV show One Tree Hill) and Glasgow's reign as European City of Culture, the paper was accessible and interesting to pupils.

Initial reaction to the Credit reading paper was that it was "long", although questions were straightforward but worth only one mark. Pupils struggled with the second article, on employment opportunities in Italy - a topic they couldn't associate with. They also found some "a bit confusing", said Mrs Mori. They coped better with the third article on customs and manners in different countries.

"The problem with longer-type questions is that pupils have a tendency to use their dictionary for every word, although we teach them not to do that. It makes it difficult to home in on the relevant information."

Pupils tend to find the listening paper difficult, but this year's General listening was "OK". The topic was a ski trip to the Alps and the first couple of questions - on roadworks and a diversion - "threw" some of them.

The Credit listening exam, about work experience in a hotel in Rimini, tested pupils' vocabulary where it referred to a timetable and working day. Overall, most of the questions were short, which meant they did not have to listen to too much Italian.


Action rather than skill

The "evaluating" section in Foundation and Credit PE Standard grade exams covered straightforward activities and sports.

However, Steven McGuckin, faculty head of PE and drama at Larbert High in Falkirk, was concerned that pupils would have struggled with this section of the General exam because it covered the more specialist areas of putting in golf and skiing.

The "knowledge and understanding" section of the Foundation paper was, for the second year running, "very accessible" and contained a lot of the tick-box questions pupils like, he said. They could choose from a good range of aspects of physical fitness, although he felt some might have struggled with the language and concept of "co-operation" in Part B (2).

Mr McGuckin's only concern with the General paper was Question 10, which talked about an "action phase" rather than the whole skill.

The Credit paper was "challenging", he said, but fair and accessible. Question 9 on adaptations within a practice rather than a game situation might have posed some problems - pupils would probably have struggled to gain two marks for each of the four adaptations asked for.


No nasty surprises

Bright pupils, as opposed to those who just studied hard, were more likely to cope well with this year's Credit Standard grade English reading paper, according to Angela Whiteford, faculty head of English, RME and drama at Lochaber High, near Fort William.

Overall, she was pleased. "They were fair papers - there were no nasty surprises."

The texts in the reading section would have captured pupils' interest, she felt. As a fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans, Ms Whiteford was pleased to see it make an appearance in the Credit paper. It featured fewer questions than usual on writer's craft - imagery, word choice, sentence structure - and high-level inferential skills were required.

The General reading paper, which focused on an extract from Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, was "testing but not unfair", she felt.

Ms Whiteford's only concern with the writing paper was that pupils opting for "My sporting hero" in a magazine style might have become confused: "Some might have lapsed into personal writing instead of aiming for the register of a magazine article."


Triple the size

Although the Credit paper in this year's administration Standard grade contained nothing pupils had not seen in past papers, the business studies department of St John's High in Dundee felt there was a lot more reading in the questions than usual.

Some were a bit "long-winded", said Karen Lees, principal teacher of business studies. Their length might have caused some time problems. "Normally, when you open the exam paper, the construction is like an A3 folder and it would have two sides of questions - this time, there were six sides," she said.

Miss Lees also felt the spreadsheet question, on construction and improvement, was repetitive and risked covering similar ground to the practical apparatus project.

The General paper was straightforward.

The Foundation paper contained 16 questions. "The kids did feel it was one where they wondered if they were ever going to get to the end of it. It was quite lengthy and had an ICT bias. With Foundation, you always get kids who can do ICT on the computer, but find it difficult to put their practical experience into words," she added.

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