Warwick Mansell on the row over multiple-choice science
Hundreds of thousands of pupils will soon be able to pass GCSEs assessed entirely through multiple-choice questions and coursework.
From November, pupils will be able to score up to 75 per cent in a science GCSE by choosing from A, B, C or D options. They will sit six multiple-choice papers of either 20 or 30 minutes, each of which is offered with up to five re-sits and is marked by computer.
The exam, run by the AQA and Edexcel boards, is the first major GCSE to be mainly multiple-choice. The rest of the qualification comprises new-style coursework which allows pupils up to six attempts to get a good mark.
Edexcel's website says the exams give pupils "more chances to succeed" and that they can be tested "any time, allowing them to be tested on material when it's fresh, and can take multiple tests".
Teachers will award up to 10 per cent of the marks for the Edexcel exam, and the board will not usually check their decision.
The exams, which are also the first mainstream GCSEs to allow pupils to take some modules by computer, are provoking intense controversy.
Derek Bell, chief executive of the Association for Science Education, said:
"This seems to be an oversimplistic way of assessing what is a very complex learning process."
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?"
Critics say the new exams have been designed to be simple to mark, and to make it easy for pupils to get top grades. But the boards say that multiple-choice, or "objective tests", can be a good way to check pupils'
The development will fuel controversy over GCSEs and A-levels. Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington college, in Berkshire, writing in The TES today, says confidence in the system is "draining quicker than credibility in George W Bush's stance on Iraq".
Mr Seldon is organising a conference on June 27 in which heads of private schools will debate alternatives to mainstream exams.
The new core science GCSEs are part of a set of courses designed to make the subject more exciting. Areas of study include genetic engineering, global warming and nanotechnology.
Most pupils will take the exam alongside a second GCSE in additional science which is being assessed more traditionally.
For coursework, pupils will complete up to six unassessed investigations.
Their teachers will then set tests designed by the board on each project that will be conducted in exam conditions. The best mark will count towards their grade.
An AQA spokeswoman said: "The variety of assessment processes we use reflects the diversity of skills being tested across a wide range of subjects. All our specifications have been subject to Qualifications and Curriculum Authority accreditation procedures." A spokeswoman for the Edexcel board said its new courses were also accredited by the QCA and designed by science teachers.
A QCA spokesman said the new specifications had yet to receive final accreditation, because the regulator believed that example questions suggested by the boards were not sufficiently "rigorous".
The concept of multiple-choice exams was something the QCA was happy with, he said.
NEws 6, Leader 22
anthony seldon 23