21st November 2008 at 00:00
We report for the second week on the findings of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's external assessors across a range of exams and subjects


Wrong formulae

Despite long-running concerns about the decline of scientists in Scotland, there are encouraging signs of more pupils aspiring to careers in physics-related fields.

The number of Advanced Higher candidates was up on last year and showed an increase since 2003, though there has been a marked fall in Higher candidates since. But there was a "strong cohort" this year.

The majority of Higher pupils made good attempts at the exam and a small proportion showed an excellent grasp of physics. A small number were "very poorly prepared". Despite the "Physics Data Booklet" being available during the exam, however, a "significant number" used the wrong formulae.

Questions involving calculations were answered well, but poor written descriptions and explanations were given. There were more examples of two mutually incompatible answers to the same part of a question.


Pupils need to revise more

The onus was put on Standard grade pupils, rather than teachers, to improve their performance.

Knowledge and understanding continues to be the weakest area in Standard grade and was "much poorer" than last year. General passes declined as a result, although there was a slight increase in Credit passes.

"Poor" recall of basic knowledge lost candidates a lot of easy marks, and they lacked essential facts for more demanding questions. Certain topics were problematic: The World of Plants; The Body in Action; Investigating Cells; and Inheritance. The "greatest single improvement" could be achieved by more thorough preparation and revision.

Two groups sitting Intermediate 2 were marked out for special mention: some schools were congratulated for presenting those with a "very high standard of knowledge and understanding", but a "significant minority" showed "very poor" knowledge and understanding, "usually coupled with poor communication skills".

Intermediate 1 candidates did not perform well in Section A, and there was a lower overall pass rate.

Higher pupils performed "very well", as reflected in pass rates.

Performance improved in Advanced Higher: most had prepared well and more were outstanding. "Significant numbers" were not well prepared. When students from a centre had performed badly, they lacked the same knowledge and made the same conceptual errors.


Teachers and pupils blamed

The difference between responses to Standard grade's knowledge and understanding and enquiry skills elements is wider than ever - with teachers taking the blame.

Candidates had not prepared well for knowledge and understanding, and they, not their teachers, were "ultimately responsible". Markers also noted, however, that a "significant minority" of Credit pupils attempted all enquiry skills questions first. They were concerned that some schools were deliberately encouraging them to concentrate on these only, "to inflate the mark for this element".

Topics handled badly included Weimar Germany, the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Munich Putsch, and rights in Tsarist Russia.

While fewer pupils appeared unsuited to Credit than previously, "serious concern" remained about a "significant number of inappropriate presentations".

The markers stated: "With many failing to demonstrate an adequate grasp of factual recalled information required at Credit, this is a worrying trend for Higher."

The current performance at Higher is positive, with "ample evidence of diligent work" and "good-quality teaching and preparation by the centres".

There was a "pleasing" 15 per cent increase in Advanced Higher entries and a 6 per cent increase in A passes.


Downturn for economists

The world may be in dire need of capable economists, yet they are less likely to be turned out in Scotland. Numbers were down for Standard grade, Intermediate 1 and 2, and Higher economics, and many of the dwindling band struggled badly.

There were few outstanding pupils at Standard grade, and a lot struggled at Credit. Many mixed up the public and private sectors, and all had difficulty with the concept of average weekly gross pay. Many did not understand the effects of an identical percentage rise on different levels of salary, while the effects of credit card use on the economy were poorly understood.

There was a "significant fall" in numbers at Intermediate 1, and candidate quality was more polarised than previously: half were "very good", the rest were "poor". At Intermediate 2, however most answers were "very impressive".

The average standard of Higher pupils was slightly improved on previous years, yet teachers were advised to get them reading "quality" newspapers more often to improve their knowledge of current economic events.


Time is of the essence

Many Intermediate 1 and 2 candidates' performing programmes "fell substantially short" of the time requirements for the external exam, with the blame pinned on centres for "allowing this shortfall". The "overwhelming majority" of referrals to the principal assessor related to short programmes, some "woefully inadequate".

Intermediate 1 and 2 responses were "appreciably better" than last year. There was an increase in upper A grades, most noticeably at Intermediate 2, suggesting pupils were "increasingly comfortable" with the exam.

Some centres, however, had "clearly not prepared" their candidates for the question paper, producing answers which suggested "little or no practice" in certain areas.

Students breezed through the Standard grade exam.

All centres were congratulated on their response to issues raised following last year's Higher. A number of markers, however, commented on students whose knowledge of straightforward concepts from lower levels was not good. More time has to be spent on technique for the grid question and understanding of concepts and literacy.


TV makes its mark

The Higher made its debut this year, and candidates were not well equipped to handle the writing element.

They should have more chances to practise writing before Higher, as "it is not really possible to achieve complete accuracy in written Urdu in a year". Teachers should make "more vigorous efforts" from the first day of the Higher class, while parents should be drawn on for help with writing and speaking.

Students performed well in listening, thanks largely to the accessibility of Pakistani television channels showing films, dramas and documentaries in Urdu.


Better preparation needed

There was a "noticeable fall" in the number of Higher candidates doing badly. The format changed this year and they coped well with objective questions.

In Paper 1, Section B, questions 21a and b on stationary points and roots were handled well, and composite log functions in question 23a. In Paper 2, question 1 on straight-line geometry and question 2 on vectors were "exceptionally well done".

There were four demanding questions in Paper 1, Section A on the general equation of a quadratic curve (question 13); special integrals (14); the distributive law for the scalar product (18); and expressing a log equation as an exponential equation (20). The solving of the log equation in Section B's question 23b was "very poorly done".

A "fair number" could not recall the shapes of the sine and cosine curves in Paper 2's question 3. In question 4, attempts to find the intersection of a line and circle were disappointing, with "many casual errors".

Schools were told to prepare pupils better for the "routine procedures" of factorising quadratic equations, finding points of intersection of a line and curve, and writing a trigonometry expression as a single wave function.

At Standard grade Credit, there was "much good work" in number, statistics, equation of a line and trigonometry, but "superficial understanding" of algebra, quadratics and indices.

Intermediate 1 candidates were not prepared enough for the non-calculator paper, and retention of work studied early in the course needed improvement. Intermediate 2 students were presented at the correct level; performance in Paper 2 was better.

There was a "pleasing" 15 per cent rise in Advanced Higher maths and applied maths pupils.


EU not popular

The European Union appears singularly unpopular at all levels.

The United States fascinates Intermediate 1 and 2 candidates most, with South Africa, China and Brazil also of interest, but "very few" schools are studying the EU. For Advanced Higher essays, pupils preferred law and order or comparisons of the UK and the USA, with few attempting the EU theme.

Markers reported an improvement in Higher paper 1 responses and the "overwhelming majority" of reports were well structured, but there was evidence of candidates being presented at the wrong level.

A question on Congress and the Supreme Court's ability to check the US President's powers was well answered and produced the most contemporary exemplification - the overturning of a presidential veto days before the exam - of any response.

There was a "marked improvement" in Intermediate 2 attainment, but a fall in the case of Intermediate 1 students.

Intermediate 2 knowledge and understanding of international issues was "very limited", and responses to US questions disappointed.

Markers were "very pleased" with Standard grade performance. The number of blank papers continued to fall "quite markedly".

Many centres over-estimated Advanced Higher candidates' performance, with dissertations not usually included in estimates. There was "excellent teaching" of research methods, but often a lack of appropriate dissertation sources and overuse of websites such as Wikipedia and Tutor2u.

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