23rd April 2010 at 01:00
As the exam season gets into gear next week, the analysis by external assessors of last year's performance provides a hint of what markers are looking for. In the first of a two-part series, Emma Seith and Henry Hepburn delve into their reports


Listening incomprehension

The toughest part of the Higher French exam for most pupils remains the listening paper. Last year, there was a wide range of performance in listening comprehension, even though the topic - experience as a foreign language assistant - was one with which pupils would have been familiar.

Some candidates lost out on easier points by failing to recognise the more factual information, including the time phrases: plus tard, chaque semaine and jusqu'a 20 heures.

The translation also proved tough, with many candidates losing points for a basic lack of accuracy in translating articles (leur as thea) and singularplural nouns (la niche, as the kennels).

However, the overall results in each component of the Higher were "very encouraging".

The writing tasks produced the greatest range of performances, from very good to very poor. The pupils who floundered used the dictionary to create sentences instead of drawing on what they had learned, with "predictably dire consequences".

Meanwhile, at Advanced Higher, it was poor English, not French, that let pupils down. "Candidates' answers were often spoiled and occasionally incomprehensible because of poor English," the report stated.


Vocabulary confusion

The first Mandarin exams made their debut last year, with nine candidates at Intermediate 1, and 27 at Intermediate 2. Most took the "simplified" exam, rather than the "traditional" version.

Overall performance at Intermediate 2 was "very encouraging". In writing, candidates produced responses of "considerable length and with a high level of accuracy, range and variety of structures".

The most difficult section was listening, Many found it difficult to retain specific details from the three long texts. They did not compensate by picking up easier points, due to an inability to recognise common vocabulary such as "cheap" and "better".

Schools were congratulated for the "encouraging" performance of Intermediate 1 candidates in all areas. The few poor showings came mainly in reading, with answers lacking detail.

The first Higher Mandarin exams will take place this year.


Copy cats

Markers were exercised about potential plagiarism in the Higher and Advanced Higher - sometimes a whole class did the same Higher extended essay.

"This can result in a batch of essays which, on occasions, use very similar phrasing and sentence structure, thereby raising concerns among markers of plagiarism," the report stated.

Some candidates wrote extended essays on issues outwith the syllabus, while others chose subjects that were too demanding, such as: "Did foreign intervention affect the Spanish Civil War?"

Guidance notes for the extended essay were due to be amended, to clarify what was permissible. The overall quality of extended essays was commended, however, with more pupils showing awareness of historical debate and historiography. But markers were concerned by a growing number of Higher candidates writing answers that were too short and lacked detail.

Overall, candidates' work in the Higher exam showed that history "continues to thrive in Scottish schools".

At Standard grade, inappropriate presentations were too commonplace. The "ever-widening discrepancy" between enquiry skills and knowledge and understanding - the latter being weaker - is "concerning", particularly for progression to Higher.

Markers highlighted lack of recall, due to either insufficient revision or misreading of questions.

There was an increase, across all Standard grade levels, of "poor and almost illegible handwriting", exacerbated by the use of pencils rather than pens.


Chemical mix

A sound performance was demonstrated by candidates across nearly all types of question in the 2009 Higher chemistry exam.

There were relatively few non-attempts, good evidence of rote learning of chemical knowledge - something markers noted as lacking in the past - and answers to calculations were well-structured.

The exception came when candidates were asked to do extended writing. "Here, many of the explanations tended to be lacking both in clarity and depth," the report said.

This was also noted as a weakness in the Advanced Higher chemistry exam, where pupils lost marks "due to their inability to express themselves clearly in writing".

Candidates sitting the Higher were also "relatively poorly prepared" for problem-solving questions.

Prescribed practical abilities (PPA) questions, meanwhile, continued to show improvement, but results varied widely from one school to another.


On another level

Religious, moral and philosophical studies is one of the fastest-growing subjects, with 2,573 candidates at Higher - up 22 per cent from 2008. Some markers, however, said too many were at the wrong level, and that these candidates found the whole paper "demanding".

The overall performance was "very good", although Paper 2 produced better responses. The two most popular choices in Paper 1 were gender, crime and punishment, and medical ethics. Paper 2's favoured topics were Buddhism and Christianity.

The religion and moral values section continues to cause difficulties. Some candidates appeared to have no knowledge of virtue ethics, for example. A question on Judaism was answered poorly, with candidates failing to show an understanding of Jewish religious identity.

Markers were concerned that a small number of candidates had been instructed to re-write their Paper 1 answers in separate booklets, having accidentally written the whole paper in only one.

"It would benefit candidates if this practice was discouraged," the report stated. "The burden on the candidate being instructed to do this far outweighs the burden on those who are marking the paper."

Schools were congratulated for their good work at Standard grade, particularly at Foundation and Credit levels.

The main issues of concern were in the General paper, including questions on Jesus's baptism, while many did not understand the term "sanctity of life".

Advanced Higher candidates will have to be reminded that a good dissertation contains a bibliography and footnotes.


Extra time's a winner

The extra time given for Higher close reading led to a "significant reduction" in candidates who failed to answer all the questions. This time advantage, however, was frequently lost by candidates who did not use their own words for "understanding" questions. For "no obvious reason", many relied too closely on the wording of the passage or were "blatantly quoting" from it.

Critical essays continued to improve. Many markers highlighted as a "definite strength" that candidates focused on the main point of the question.

The most common "genre infringement" continues to be in Section B - Prose, in which candidates use a short story to answer a question on a novel. This is attributed to pupils being "under-prepared and forced to desperate measures".

The poor quality of handwriting was a common complaint, as was inaccurate use of apostrophes and incorrect punctuation when using "however," "therefore" and "this".


Human topics `a conundrum'

The most challenging questions for pupils sitting Higher geography were about industry - "a conundrum", the markers concluded.

For the third year running, they found that questions on the human topics of industrial and urban geography were not done well, despite being "straightforward".

The markers added: "Despite clear specific advice and exhortations in external assessment reports, candidate performance in this topic has steadfastly resisted improvement."

Again they stressed it was insufficient simply to list locations such as airports and universities without naming the specific industrial area being referred to.

"Last year (2008), one of the big improvements was in the use of named examples by candidates, particularly in Paper 2," it was reported. "This improvement, unfortunately, has not been maintained."

Markers also noted a need for some schools to improve their teaching of the biosphere, following a "very marked variation" in the quality of answers.

They warned against rote learning, stressing that candidates needed to demonstrate understanding. "The need for candidates to appreciate the nuances in questions is paramount," they added.

However, questions involving Ordnance Survey map analysis, glaciated landscapes and malaria were done particularly well.


Creativity is `breathtaking'

Art teachers have been warned not to submit folios with large amounts of Higher work missing. Markers noted that "some centres forwarded work which had empty sheets".

Last year, marks for Higher art and design were not as high as in the previous two years, and more candidates "were not of Higher standard".

However, markers reported that the subject continued to be delivered with enthusiasm, and praised staff for guiding their candidates "so well". The expressive folios contained many outstanding submissions that belied the age of the majority of the candidates, they said.

In the design folios, pupils' creativity was described as "quite breathtaking" at times. "Hand skills were well developed and candidates demonstrated fantastic patience and dedication which, in the `instant' world they live, is even more commendable," markers added.

Handwriting was criticised in the written paper, and teachers were urged to encourage pupils to write "as legibly as possible".

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