14th January 2011 at 00:00
As pupils sit their prelims in preparation for this year's exams, TESS writers review the SQA's external assessors' analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of last year's candidates


Beware sharp objects

Higher art and design candidates have been warned to avoid using "hazardous materials" in their creations, especially if their work is being sent away to be marked.

Artwork submitted for the design folio had to be handled by a number of people and pieces made from broken glass, jagged metal or raw edges of chicken-wire had the "potential to cause harm", warned markers.

Plagiarism was also identified as a problem in design folios, and teachers were warned not to "allow or encourage candidates to copy the work of others".

In the expressive folios, there was evidence of an increase in strong, traditional painting, indicating a slight move away from the polished "photographic" finish which had predominated over the past few years.

However, teachers were asked to encourage candidates to avoid basic drawing errors such as pointed ellipses, lack of understanding of depth and poor proportion of the head.

Such mistakes were partially responsible for fewer A grade passes last year and more fails. Another contributing factor was a less successful cohort of Intermediate 2 candidates who had progressed on to do Higher.

The performance of Intermediate 2 candidates in 2010, however, bodes well for the future; their work was deemed to be "outstanding". Almost three- quarters of candidates achieved an A pass (72.1 per cent) as compared to 41.5 per cent in 2009 and 57.7 per cent in 2008. The performance of Intermediate 1 candidates was also of "a higher standard than in previous years".

Markers of the Intermediate 2 exam did issue a plea, however: that photography involving candidates modelling garments such as bikinis be discouraged. An alternative solution, they suggested, would be to photograph the garments on a tailor's mannequin or coathanger.


Dissertations with direction

Cutting and pasting from popular websites such as Wikipedia and BBC News counts as plagiarism, Advanced Higher modern studies candidates have been warned.

Overuse of these sites as sources for dissertations also worked to the detriment of the pupils' own analysis and synthesis, found markers.

Generally, however, it was poor planning that led to a poor-quality dissertation. Nevertheless, an increasing number of candidates produced high-quality dissertations, with the standard improving year on year.

Candidates who did well had:

- chosen a hypothesis that was based on a current issue;

- used a suitable selection of primary and secondary sourcesresearch methods;

- attributed evidence clearly by means of consistent referencing and a bibliography;

- proof-read their dissertation.

At Higher level, schools with the best performances had trained candidates to answer the question set; markers were critical of pupils who attempted to "turn the question".

Long, rambling answers were also to be avoided. One possible approach suggested was the "Point, Explain, Example, Balance" (PEEB) structure.

The use of accurate, relevant and up-to-date exemplification remained highly creditworthy. The number of candidates sitting Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 increased significantly by 37 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.


Lost in translation

A lack of attention to detail lost candidates marks at all levels. Performance in reading was satisfactory at Standard grade, though poor recognition of vocabulary was an issue in the General and Credit listening papers. Many pupils thought that "war" in question 9 was something to do with "the war".

A high percentage of candidates were awarded a grade 1 in speaking, but many were unable to demonstrate the development of ideas required for an upper Credit award when writing in German. The report noted a significant number of candidates presented at GeneralCredit level should clearly have been presented at the lower level.

Average marks for Higher papers were down 2.0 to 26.0 across the reading and directed writing papers and down 2.2 to a 17.2 average in listening and personal response writing. The average mark in speaking was up by 0.3.

Candidates lost marks due to a lack of attention to detail in reading and listening and a lack of care in addressing bullet points in directed writing. Many pupils nevertheless scored particularly well in the translation and coped well with the demands of directed writing, including the challenging final bullet point, which this year asked them whether a stay in Germany immediately before the exam had helped their preparation.

The overall performance of Advanced Higher candidates was in line with previous years. However, pupils performed "notably better" in the translation than in the past.


No time to take a siesta

The reading and directed writing parts of Higher Spanish were done well by most, as was the translation, directed reading and listening. Both in reading and translation, however, marks were lost for "poor English expression, writing skills, dictionary misuse and lack of attention to detail". In paper 2, markers noted that an excessive length in essays led to "a deterioration in the accuracy of the language and a lack of control".

Teachers need to stress to candidates that they are not allowed to give alternative answers - in other words, writing one answer and then offering another in brackets.

Wrong use and overuse of dictionaries was highlighted by markers at a variety of levels, as it led to literal translation of ideas which did not always make sense.

"Virtually all" Standard grade candidates produced three "reasonable" pieces of work in the writing part of the exam with some exceptional essays being produced. Overall, candidates who were free to express their own ideas achieved good results.

General reading proved a challenge, with a number of candidates having "difficulties in coping with anything more than one-word answers". As in previous years, candidates struggled with basic vocabulary in reading and listening.


Technical hitches

Section A of Higher technological studies was done well but many candidates found section B difficult. There were swathes of blank space without any answers; very few candidates could describe the operation of a system as in questions 9 and 11.

Section B questions were spread across more pages than usual and this may have made the paper slightly more challenging for some. The grade boundary for "C" was changed to redress this.

Reduced estimate grades were reflected in overall performance, which was lower than in 2009. One in eight candidates scored less than 30 per cent. Illegible handwriting is making it harder to award the marks a candidate deserves.

Programming is an area which has seen a steady improvement for some time, but performance was poor in questions 3 and 7. It appears some candidates are being taught invalid syntax. More time should be devoted during the year to writing and running programs. Decisions and loops are also proving challenging topics.

Markers' feedback and SQA statistics suggested last year's Standard grade had been fair, but further investigation showed the Credit paper was easier than normal, due to "a combination of small factors that led to a slight, but unintentional, decrease in rigour". As a result, Credit grade boundaries were altered.

Many candidates seemingly attempted to complete a flowchart or PBASIC program without reference to the SQA data booklet. Knowledge and understanding of pneumatics are not of the required standard, and a number of candidates lacked basic knowledge of mechanical systems. Calculations involving speed in a drive system continued to be challenging for many.


Entries under a microscope

There are concerns that too many pupils were entered at the wrong level.

This year's Higher biology had more entries, a slightly reduced pass rate and a lower proportion of A grades. Assessors point to an increase in candidates better suited to Intermediate 2.

The average score for the objective test (section A) was lower than in recent years. Knowledge and understanding questions were again done better than problem solving, in which there were difficulties with graph reading.

Candidates performed well in short answers (section B), although not as strongly as 2009. In problem-solving, many failed to use values from a source graph to describe trends in data. There were difficulties with identification of variables and, in particular, with the description of a control.

Extended responses (section C) were poorer than in recent years. In question 2, the evolution of new species option was much more popular than transpiration, although the latter was significantly higher scoring, possibly due to the descriptive response required.

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