Is the growing use of multiple-choice questions in science GCSE:a) a well-thought out improvement to qualifications
b) a cost-saving exercise c) dumbing down, or
d) something of a mystery?
Warwick Mansell looks for the answer
how did one of the most significant changes to our exam system in recent years take place without anyone who might have objected on educational grounds knowing about it?
This is the mystery behind the introduction this term of different science GCSEs, to be taken by most key stage 4 pupils in England over the next two years.
The content of these courses has been highly controversial. They encourage pupils to debate topical issues such as biotechnology and global warming, an approach derided by some as "science for the pub", but welcomed by others as enlivening the subject.
But the way they are being assessed, although less widely reported, is equally contentious.
As The TES revealed in June, two of the three main boards (AQA and Edexcel) are introducing courses as multiple-choice exams with a coursework element.
The multiple choice part is a 20 or 30-minute test, which the pupil can retake, with the best mark counting. The rest of the GCSE is assessed through short-answer tests, set by the board and marked by teachers, subject to exam board moderation.
AQA's version allows pupils to achieve a single GCSE on the basis of multiple choice and internal assessment. Under Edexcel, they can gain two GCSEs in this way.
This is the first time one of our core academic exams has been entirely multiple choice: ie, the externally-assessed element consists only of multiple choice.
Some say the move could change teaching substantially, increasing still further the time that GCSE pupils spend preparing for exams, with schools drilling pupils to master multiple choice.
Traditionally, Britain has resisted using multiple choice as a major part of GCSEs and A-levels. For some, the development represents a change of culture, raising the spectre of a move to a US-style emphasis on tick-box answers.
Yet its development had passed off largely unnoticed.
The boards appear not to have discussed it with subject experts, although the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority claims that experts, including representatives from the Association for Science Education and the Royal Society, were involved.
But Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said his organisation had not been asked to comment on assessment methodology or told it would take this format.
He was not pleased to learn of the new arrangements: "This seems to be an oversimplistic way of assessing what is a very complex learning process,"
The Royal Society - which has been lobbying ministers to avert a crisis in the light of the collapse in numbers opting for physics and chemistry at A-level - also says the move came as a shock.
John Holman, director of the National Science Learning Centre, also had no foreknowledge of the change.
To an outside observer, this is strange. How is it possible that such a significant move could have happened with so little consultation?
One question the boards have not answered is whether multiple-choice has been favoured for reasons of convenience.
One former senior QCA official said: "The temptation, for test writers and administrators, is to use multiple choice because it is cheap." The tests are to be marked by computer, drastically reducing the boards' overheads and making administration far simpler.
The changes will also not have been difficult to sell to schools.
There is no way yet of judging whether the tests are easier or harder than their predecessors. The first were only taken last month and grade boundaries have yet to be published. Some pupils may have struggled with the volume of reading involved: one teacher said pupils had to read 1,500 words in 30 minutes for one chemistry exam.
However, given the pressure on schools to produce results, the attractions of a multiple-choice test that can be retaken up to six times over the two years of a GCSE course with the best mark counting, should be obvious.
One science source said: "The exam boards have been put in a commercial marketplace by Government. There's a lot of feedback from schools saying they want assessment to be less burdensome, more straightforward, and they want quick feedback. The boards have responded."
But what of the tests' educational merit? Scepticism is rife, particularly as the exams were launched to coincide with the introduction of new syllabuses, which are meant to stress communication skills, or "scientific literacy".
There is widespread disbelief that the multiple-choice tests and internal assessment can properly assess important aspects of the science curriculum.
The Government's programme of study for key stage 4 says that students should be taught to "present information, develop an argument and draw a conclusion, using technical, scientific and mathematical language".
Yet the internal assessment tests, the only aspects of the new GCSEs requiring any writing, consist mainly of one and two-mark questions, needing just a few words.
Jonathan Osborne, professor of science education at King's College, London, said: "How is this going to assess pupils' ability to express themselves in scientific language, a major aspect of science?"
Andrew Hunt, of the Nuffield Foundation, said the buck should stop with the QCA: "If the new programme of study is meant to emphasise scientific literacy, it does seem odd that the main mode of assessment is multiple choice. Why the QCA has approved it, I cannot imagine."
A source involved in the development of the new science courses said that consultants working for the QCA are supposed to ensure that the course is assessed in a way that matches the "spirit" of the new science curriculum.
"The system falls down if they accept assessment materials that are not in the spirit of it. That's what seems to have happened here," he said.
AQA would not comment beyond its initial response in June that the new exams had not been "dumbed down" and would test higher order thinking skills.
Edexcel said: "Multiple choice has been a standard at GCSE and A-levels for many years. All boards use multiple choice as a valid method of assessment.
"Edexcel specifications are produced in consultation with teachers, examiners, consultants and other interested parties."
It is puzzling, then, that no one appears to have picked up on multiple choice as an issue.
If any reader has more information on this issue, email firstname.lastname@example.org
The diagram shows how one early theory attempted to explain the formation of mountains on the Earth
a) This early theory suggests that the mountains are formed...
1 as low density rock rises from the core
2 as molten rock escapes from the core
3 by the shrinking of the Earth
4 by volcanic eruptions.
b) According to this theory...
1 mountains rose from the sea bed
2 mountains were formed by earthquakes
3 mountains were formed by a rising tectonic plate
4 the high points of the wrinkles formed the mountains.
c) One reason why this theory is not accepted now is because...
1 radioactive processes in the Earth release heat
2 the Earth is spherical
3 there are convection currents in the Earth's crust
4 the material in the Earth's interior is less dense than the crust.
d) Scientists now think that mountains are formed...
1 because the Earth is expanding as it heats up
2 by earthquakes at plate boundaries
3 by large-scale movements of the Earth's crust
4 by weathering and erosion of older mountain ranges