Posted on August 29, 2007

Exam Boards Told To Set Easier Questions

Martin Beckford, London Telegraph, August 29, 2007

Pupils could be set a greater number of easy questions in GCSE science exams from next year, it was claimed last night.

More than two-thirds of basic papers and half of advanced papers may be made up of “low-demand questions”, such as multiple-choice questions, if the new guidelines are adopted.

The move to increase the proportion of simpler questions, proposed by the body that represents examining boards, was condemned by an education expert who claimed that it was further evidence of “dumbing down”.

Almost one fifth of GCSE entries was awarded an A or A* grade this year, while the proportion of A* to C grades rose by almost one percentage point to 63.3 per cent.

Prof Alan Smithers, the head of the Education and Employment Research Centre at the University of Buckingham, said: “Deliberately increasing the proportion of easier questions is a clear example of lowering the bar.

“Already, exam questions have become too predictable and this is another example of making exams more user-friendly.

“Better exam scores are only good news if they stand for corresponding increases in underlying understanding. Putting in more low-demand questions is the sort of change that gives rise to suspicion.”

GCSE students either take the foundation-tier science paper, under which they can gain grades between G and C, or the higher tier, under which they can be awarded grades from D to A*.

A document prepared by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents awarding bodies across the country, says that from next year the proportion of low-demand questions in the foundation paper should rise from 55 per cent to 70 per cent.

It also says the proportion of easier questions in the higher tier paper should be increased from 45 to 50 per cent.

As well as multiple-choice questions, which can be answered correctly simply through guesswork, there are likely to be more “cue-heavy” questions in which pupils are provided with background information to help them find the right answer.

The JCQ’s guidelines are not binding and can be ignored by individual examining boards, but they are said to represent a “gentleman’s agreement” among the awarding bodies.

Jim Sinclair, the JCQ’s director, denied that the proposed changes would lead to a rise in the number of pupils achieving grade C or better at GCSE science, raising further fears about grade inflation. He added that the changes would stop children being “turned off” by the subject.

“Part of the desire is that the student can come out of the exam with a feeling of success that they have actually tackled a significant proportion of the questions and achieved the best grade expected,” he said.

“The vast majority of candidates taking this exam are going to achieve grades D to G, and they deserve a positive experience of science.”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said she did not believe there was any reason for the JCQ’s proposals to be adopted.

“We have recently revised these exams and have no plans to look at them again,” she said. “GCSEs have been a massive success in driving up standards and their rigour is trusted by teachers, pupils, parents and employers alike.”