SQA exams reviewed

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Starting today, and for the next six weeks, teachers and FE lecturers across Scotland will be reviewing and analysing the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam papers that their pupils and students have been sitting
Starting today, and for the next six weeks, teachers and FE lecturers across Scotland will be reviewing and analysing the Scottish Qualifications Authority exam papers that their pupils and students have been sitting.

They will discuss exams at various levels. This week, all the subjects reviewed are at Standard grade, but subsequent weeks will include the full range from Standard grade to Intermediate 1 and 2, Higher and Advanced Higher.

The subjects will range from high-uptake ones, such as Standard grade English, which features today, to some of the more esoteric, such as philosophy. The more vocational subjects, such as travel and tourism and care, usually delivered in further education colleges, will also be discussed.

This year sees the introduction of some new exams - Higher Urdu has attracted 60 entries, while Intermediate 1 graphic communication has 145.

A small number of low-uptake courses have been dropped from the exam diet: crop establishment at Intermediate 2; fish husbandry, Intermediate 2; Higher automotive engineering; Higher beauty care; and Higher hairdressing - principles of colouring hair.


No Tricks

"The pupils all came out smiling - they were happy," said Amanda Mori, who teachers Italian at Motherwell's Dalziel High.

The North Lanarkshire school's 15 Standard grade candidates are all keen linguists who are also taking French or Spanish and, despite having only started Italian in S3, they found the paper straightforward.

Mrs Mori said pupils considered General reading as "easier than normal", pointing to "an awful lot of tick boxes and not a lot of writing".

Pupils settled well into Credit reading, thanks to a first question that indicated in which paragraphs to find the answers, although Mrs Mori thinks the wording in one or two questions left pupils unclear about what they were being asked.

Overall, however, pupils felt Credit reading was not overly-taxing, compared to some previous years. Questions covered "appropriate and topical" areas, such as an international organisation for pen friends and the controversial introduction of a congestion charge in Milan.

Pupils had "no problem" with General listening, but unfamiliarity with some of the vocabulary in the Credit paper - the words for toothpaste and soap, for example - made it trickier.

"The paper was fair and didn't trick the pupils in any way," Mrs Mori said.


Bothy Ballads

The Standard grade music listening papers were "pretty straightforward", according to the principal teacher of music at Portlethen Academy in Aberdeenshire.

Alison Reid felt there was nothing particularly tricky in either the General or the Credit papers (the school had no pupils sitting Foundation).

This year's exam, she noted, was heavy on musicals. Among those featured was Les Miserables. And, as always, the most enjoyable section for pupils seemed to be the Scottish music section, where they hear bothy ballads and people singing in local dialects.

The chord change question was the most likely to cause problems, she felt, simply because it is always deemed difficult by pupils. "Guitarists tend to do well because they work and think in chords, but everyone else struggles and finds it a hard question," she said.


Lateral Thinking

Madeleine McLellan got good vibes about this year's administration Standard grade, the moment she saw one particular boy emerge with a grin on his face. He had only taken up the subject half-way through the year, so his positive reaction boded well.

"All the papers covered all the main topics - there were no surprises," said Mrs McLellan, principal teacher of business education at Glasgow's St Margaret Mary's Secondary. "If the pupils were prepared, I think they will get the grades they deserved."

The Credit paper required some lateral thinking, including one question in particular that introduced a scenario which Mrs McLellan had not come across before: a car had been left in a car park for the previous three days, and candidates had to say what they would do about it.

Other Credit questions required a more straightforward demonstration of knowledge. For example, candidates were told they had to distribute a document to colleagues which was subject to copyright. They had to show they knew not to make photocopies, but to have the document passed from department to department.


A Mixed Bag

The wide scope of the Standard grade writing paper gave all candidates a chance to flourish, according to Fortrose Academy's principal teacher, Fiona Watson.

The 22 questions, only one of which has to be selected, offered a host of ways to tackle the hour-and-a-quarter paper.

Candidates were invited, for example, to write a short story with the title "Seeing is Believing" or "Close Up". One question proclaimed that "Big Brother is Watching You!" and looked for a piece about a time when the writer felt there was no escape from authority, while another attempted to provoke a social critique by stating that: "We need to give the older generation the respect they deserve".

"The SQA has got it right with the Standard grade writing paper," Ms Watson said. "There was a good range of topics and chance for the pupils to show their writing skills."

Fortrose Academy's more able students do Intermediate English rather than Standard grade Credit - the exam-orientated assessment is thought to be better preparation for Higher English - so Ms Watson was only able to comment on the Foundation and General reading papers.

She thought the General passage about surfing in Caithness was "potentially engaging", but let down by repetitive magazine interviews, although it was pitched at the right level of difficulty.

The Foundation reading paper's use of an adapted short story by an unspecified author was more successful, thanks to a gripping plot about a hitch-hiker picked up by a mysteriously taciturn driver, which ended on a cliffhanger: "He began to drive even faster."

Tommy Whitehill, principal teacher of English at Glasgow's St Roch's Secondary, said that even well-prepared candidates came out disheartened after a Credit reading paper that used the opening chapter from Atonement, the novel by Ian McEwan. "We felt the language was difficult and there seemed to be a more marked difference between General and Credit this year than in most years," he said.


Keep it trim

Screeds of the Standard grade PE course are never examined, with the same types of questions coming up year after year, according to one PE specialist.

This year's Standard grade papers were fair, felt John Scrimgeour, principal teacher of PE at Craigie High in Dundee. However, the exam followed the pattern of previous years, asking questions on topics such as fitness, rules, training and its effects, and skills development - but leaving the same, vast areas untouched. "A lot of the stuff we teach never comes up," said Mr Scrimgeour. "It would seem the course needs to be trimmed."

Questions 8 and 10 on speed and skill-related fitness might have caused problems for pupils sitting the General paper, he felt. And the Credit paper was "challenging", but pupils reported back that they had enjoyed it.


Setters did a good job

A recent trend in fairer Standard grade papers in chemistry is encouraging an increased uptake of the subject at Higher at Glasgow's Lourdes Secondary. This year should be no exception, predicts the school's principal teacher of chemistry.

"We have to encourage more kids to do chemistry - we need a strong base of science in Scotland or nationally we're in trouble," said Brian Heaney. "Uptake for Higher chemistry has increased at the school and we have very good interest this year. I think a fair Standard grade paper is contributing to this, whereas five years ago a very demanding paper was putting children off."

Mr Heaney described the General paper as "very fair and well constructed". Pupils found it fairly straightforward, but some questions helped separate pupils of different abilities - not everyone would have been able to get a Grade 3. "The setters did a good job," he said.

The Credit paper was "good and acceptable to the pupils", who were able to answer all the questions: "The setters are setting it at a good level - you might not be the greatest pupil, but you might get a Grade 2."

Mr Heaney added that recent papers had started with questions at a "fair level", which have encouraged pupils to settle and focus more: "Going back four or five years, they were hitting pupils with a difficult, demanding question, and if they can't answer the first question, they panic."


Know your audience

This year's Standard grade should encourage lots of pupils into engineering, according to the principal teacher of craft, design and technology at Edinburgh's Boroughmuir High.

Ian Bell believes the exam was challenging - but not so difficult that pupils would be put off the subject forever. That is where it needs to be pitched at, if the engineering industry is to receive a boost, he believes.

"I thought it was a pretty fair and comprehensive exam that covered all the elements well," he said. "If a student had done their revision by looking at previous papers, there should have been enough similar-type questions to allow them to perform well."

Pupils found the Credit paper "quite difficult", but Mr Bell saw no reason why it should have caused too many problems. He did, however, pick out two questions with which he took issue.

The first question in the Credit paper was confusing, because three answers were required yet only two marks allocated. Mr Bell thought this was unfortunate, since a relatively gentle lead-in helps put pupils at ease in the pressure of an exam hall.

Question 5, meanwhile, asked pupils to identify two ways of reducing friction. Mr Bell felt pupils would know about the use of lubricant, but struggle to come up with a second example.

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