Testing times: 150 years of assessment

12th December 2008 at 00:00

Shakespeare was optional, knowledge of the preterite indicative was compulsory, and a caloriometer was a mundane piece of classroom equipment.

Those who hanker after some sort of golden era of secondary schooling might do well to remember that the past 150 years were less than ideal, according to researchers from Cambridge Assessment which owns the OCR board.

To mark the agency's 150th birthday, its researchers looked at secondary school exam papers in the seventh year of every decade, from 1857 onwards. These papers - which include junior local examinations, school certificate examinations, O-levels and GCSEs - highlight changes in curricula, education systems and general societal priorities over the years.

"Does assessment drive the curriculum or vice versa" the researchers asked. "And to what extent are either or both dependent upon the prevailing priorities of society in general? Taking an occasional look back over our shoulder is a good thing - if only to reflect on how far we have come."



For many years, Shakespeare was not compulsory and the study of English literature was not a mandatory part of the curriculum.

In 1877, the English exam was a single compulsory Shakespeare paper. The subject was then optional until 1907, so candidates could choose to take geography, Roman history or English history instead.

After 1907, there was no requirement to study Shakespeare. It is only in the past 10 years that the Bard has become mandatory.

Beyond Shakespeare, there is no clear canon. Fashions vary: Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson have not appeared on the curriculum since 1977.

Living authors were first introduced in 1927, including Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.

Earlier exams demanded a much greater knowledge of prescribed texts, including lengthy quotations. Today, candidates are expected to discuss their own experiences of literature.


1877 - In what sense does Shakespeare use the following words: manage, natural, humorous, warp, parlous, quotidian, point-devise, rascal, puisny, carlot?

2007 - You are Claudio. You have just been challenged to a duel by Benedick. Write your thoughts.


Over the past 150 years, demonstrating a detailed knowledge of the preterite indicative of the verb tenir has been abandoned by examiners, in favour of using the word correctly in a sentence.

From 1867 to 1907, candidates would be required to translate several large, dense pieces of narrative from French to English, and one similar piece from English to French. The only other questions required them to parse specific words.

By 1927, the parsing questions were abandoned and, in 1937, reading comprehension was introduced.

Between 1957 and 1987, listening comprehension and multiple choice questions were added. But it was not until GCSEs were introduced that papers were divided clearly into listening, reading, speaking and writing sections.

Vocabulary requirements also changed gradually. Early papers demanded a theoretical knowledge of "pure French", rarely used in France itself, while papers now focus on day-to-day French vocabulary.


1887 - Give the plurals of bijou, fou, corail, poire-boire, celui-ci; the genders of legume, merite; and distinguish between la voile and le voile. Write in full the present indicative of hair, the preterite indicative of tenir, the imperfect subjunctive of promettre and, in the negative form, the imperative of s'en aller.


Despite huge changes to the map of the world between 1927 and 1987, geography exams changed very little.

From 1937, the exam covered map skills, physical geography and human geography. A second paper was divided by region. So, while the 1937 section on the British Empire had, like the British Raj in India, ceased to exist by 1947, other sections remained unchanged.

Additions to the syllabus tended to reflect developments in knowledge and priorities. For example, questions about weather systems and forecasting were introduced in 1947, on pollution in 1977, and on climate change in 2007.

With GCSEs, the focus switched to human geography: environmental, economic and developmental. The questions require fewer descriptions of physical features or human activities, and more analysis of the interaction between human and physical geography.


1907 - Mention the chief exports of i) Brazil; ii) Chile; iii) Costa Rica; and state from what parts of Central or South America we get i) silver; ii) mahogany; iii) quinine.

1997 - Describe two ways that modern farming may cause river pollution. How might these pollutants get into a river? Describe how farming pollutants affect a river ecosystem.


While today almost every maths question is accompanied by a figure, diagram or illustration, these did not begin to appear in exams until 1937.

However, certain core elements - sums, proportion, fractions, quadratic equations and geometry - have always formed a part of maths exams.

The geometry element has varied. At first, syllabuses merely prescribed Euclid, books I-IV.

In 1951, the new O-level incorporated the major engineering developments of World War Two. Geometry was no longer strictly theoretical; questions involved practical use. Today, exams include opportunities for computer-aided drawing.

With the introduction of electronic calculators, many subject areas - such as logarithmic and trigonometric tables - became redundant.

And, by 1997, the focus was no longer on engineering, but on communication and transferable skills. There was far more emphasis on data handling, as well as problem-solving and interpretation of statistics.


1867 - Find the sum, difference, product and quotient of 537, 152 and 763.

2007 - Factorise: 7x + 14; multiply out: 5(2x - 3); solve: 8x + 5 = 6x + 12


Potentiometers, galvanometers and caloriometers were among the equipment that early 20th-century pupils were expected to be familiar with.

Early physics exams relied heavily on the school laboratory. By contrast, recent exams place questions within a real-world context. Papers of the past required a slightly higher level of mathematical ability than contemporary papers, as well as much greater factual recall. They also necessitated an ability to communicate clearly in written English and a good understanding of language. Researchers point out that it would have been "quite an achievement" merely to understand the rubric of the 1967 exam.

But recent papers demand that pupils apply knowledge of the subject to novel contexts. More marks can now be obtained using general knowledge and common sense.


1947 - How do you account for the following facts: iron becomes magnetised when placed in a coil carrying direct current; bar magnets lose their magnetism when heated strongly?

2007 - Richard has a computer and needs to store data. He stores his data on compact discs. Describe how data is recorded on to a CD.

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