14th November 2008 at 00:00
The external assessors - or principal assessors of old - have delivered their verdict on this year's SQA exams. This week and next, we report on some of the findings


Higher standard of answers

The standard of response in this year's Higher geography exam was "much better" than in 2007.

A "significant number" of markers commented on very good and excellent performances in which candidates displayed sound knowledge and understanding of material, according to the assessor's report.

Markers were particularly pleased to note that finally, after many years of badgering, candidates were including specific, named examples in their answers.

Another area for improvement flagged up by examiners was the industrial geography topic in Paper 1 which, they reported, few answered well. Candidates must be able to provide named cities, ports, industries, companies and so on.

Markers found few Higher candidates were presented at an inappropriate level. However Intermediate 2 was a "leap too far" for some. "Borderline candidates at this level may be being denied the opportunity to achieve high grades at the lower level," they warned.


Moral superiority

Pupils sitting this year's Intermediate 2 philosophy exam scored particularly high marks for "the question on God", markers reported.

Due to the amount of material candidates had on the design argument, over three-quarters achieved more than half of the marks, with 60 per cent earning 7 marks or more out of a possible 10.

Pupils sitting the exam also answered the moral philosophy question well - an area where last year's candidates performed "exceptionally badly".

Overall, the general standard at Higher and Intermediate was deemed to be "considerably better" than last year.

Markers speculated that this might be because it was the second year of the new style of exam.

At Higher, responses to the free will and Hume questions were better than those on God and Descartes. A large number of candidates were not fully prepared to discuss agnosticism, and many did not have enough knowledge to produce an appropriately detailed critique of Descartes's position.


Well warmed up

Pupils who sat the physical education exam at Standard grade - still the most popular of the various levels offered - had been "very well prepared", the external assessor reported.

Although the papers themselves were as demanding and challenging as in previous years, there was an overall improvement in candidate performance at all levels.

At Foundation level, the questions on life-saving and "warm up and warm down" were particularly well answered.

The report gave the usual advice to candidates to read the questions carefully, noting that questions with three parts to answer proved to be both demanding and challenging in the "knowledge and understanding" sections.

There was a dramatic reduction in incidences of candidates choosing inappropriate activities - such as darts, pool and snooker (deemed unacceptable and not within the bounds of PE or school sport) - for the knowledge and understanding questions.


Some pleasure, some pain

It was a pleasure to mark some of the Advanced Higher computing papers, the external assessor reported. Some candidates achieved more than 90 per cent. However, others were still not answering in sufficient depth or detail.

"Candidates' knowledge continues to improve, but questions linked to a scenario and where they were required to give examples were still generally not well done," the report noted.

The course is linked by a number of unifying themes, and candidates' answers to theme-based questions were still poor. Nevertheless, there was an improvement in pupils' understanding of the prescribed algorithms and their ability to write algorithms.

Computer architecture continues to be the optional section where candidates score fewest marks; pupils were particularly poor at answering the questions on parallel processing in supercomputers.

At Higher, the external assessor felt the general standard of candidates was slightly better than in the past, but there had been little improvement in the standard of written English, with "many candidates offering poorly structured answers".

There were still a significant number who were "clearly unsuited for this level of paper". Twenty per cent gained no award.

By contrast, at Intermediate 2 level, there were very few poorly attempted papers. Teachers are advised to give pupils more practice in using algorithms for solving problems and to work on their exam technique, notably reading questions more carefully.


Elemental errors

Rote-learning of chemical knowledge would help some Higher candidates improve their final mark, the external assessor said.

"Recall of some parts of the Standard gradeIntermediate 2 content can be particularly poor," the report noted, pointing to knowledge of the elements, compounds and rusting.

Although there was an improvement in Higher candidates' performance in prescribed practical abilities (PPA) questions, the results suggested some teachers should review the way that such practical work is approached and revised. "Some answers suggest that the candidates have absolutely no experience of the PPA," the report noted.

Many candidates were "relatively poorly prepared" for the problem-solving question that required them to think about an unfamiliar experiment.

"The quality of the diagrams produced in the examination remains very disappointing," the report also noted.

At Standard grade, however, markers commented that grid questions had been particularly well answered.

The Intermediate 1 report points out that candidates continued to have difficulty with questions requiring recall of precise knowledge. Less than 12 per cent gave the correct answer when asked to recognise the salt formed in a neutralisation reaction.

In contrast to previous years, writing chemical formulae was not well done.

Candidates also found if difficult to complete calculations: only 35 per cent were awarded all of the available marks.

Language skills or use of terminology was often the limiting factor in questions which required a more open response.


Handwriting horrors

There was "no evidence whatsoever of textspeak" in this year's Higher English critical essay answers. However, hard-to-read handwriting remains a concern, and markers recommended centres explore appropriate use of technology for candidates whose handwriting was "seriously weak".

While the performance in the exam was broadly similar to last year's, with a slight improvement in critical essay responses, incorrect use of the apostrophe and other punctuation when using "however", "therefore" and "this" was widely noted.

Performance at Advanced Higher was much the same as last year, noted assessors. Creative writing was found to contain pieces of "sheer creative brilliance", but there was much that was "at best ordinary and routine and at worst turgid and inept".

Standard grade markers reported that candidates struggled to produce writing of sufficient "intelligibility and correctness".

Examiners warned that pupils presented early for Standard grade in S3 "may lack the maturity necessary to deal fully with the potential complexity of Credit passages".

A tendency to ramble was highlighted by markers this year, with Standard grade folio pieces becoming "self-penalising due to the inclusion of extraneous detail".

Some Higher critical essays also suffered from being "unnecessarily long".

Again, Intermediate 1 markers expressed concern that pupils were not being entered at the right level, noting "many candidates" had difficulty completing the close reading.


Stimulating submissions

Much of the work submitted for Higher art and design (as above) was "mature in style and very stimulating", markers reported.

They found the quality of the practical and written work "generally very high" and concluded that the majority of candidates had received "first class tuition".

Expressive submissions for the practical exam - where portraiture and still life were most popular - were best if there was a strong and personal theme. Where this was lacking, markers found work was "confused due to a lack of focus and direction". The weakest design submissions contained unrealistic or over-complicated briefs.

Standard grade submissions were again deemed "very good" overall. However, markers were critical of a few centres where pencil drawing was the sole medium used.

They noted more centres failed to mount pupils' work and felt they deserved to have work "presented in a professional format".


Let down by vocabulary

It was a question of "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" when it came to French. At all levels, listening and writing papers are still the most difficult sections for pupils.

External assessors this year again emphasised the need for pupils to work on common vocabulary, including numbers, time phrases, weather phrases, prepositions and places, particularly in the listening sections of lower level exams.

The usual faux amis were mistranslated: travailler as travel, journee as journey, and carautocar as car, in the Intermediate 1 paper, with similar examples given for other papers.

Although Standard grade candidates were praised overall for their performance in all sections, some were let down by not knowing some "wee words" like ne ... plus.

At Higher level, a surprisingly high number of candidates mistranslated or confused un quart d'heure and quatre mois.

The writing task in the Higher exam produced the greatest range of performances, from very good to very poor. "Many candidates struggled to incorporate learned material with the required level of accuracy and relevance to achieve a satisfactory performance, while a relatively small number of candidates produced poor and very poor performances with little or no control of basic grammar and verb formation," the external assessors reported.

Higher French teachers were advised that although the internal writing task - a personal record of achievement - was no longer mandatory as part of the 80-hour unit assessment, they should continue to use it as part of their teaching syllabus. It had been "designed to help candidates develop grammatical accuracy in handling present, past and future tenses, and to focus on the accuracy that is required in terms of spelling, genders, accents and agreements when you move from the spoken to the written mode". It still had a valuable role to play.

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