GCSE Standards: I begin to learn

Exam Hall

Exam Hall

Having shouted from the rooftops about GCSE standards I thought I should learn more about them. So this evening I went to the Edexcel Web Site, clicked around and downloaded a couple of papers. Specifically I downloaded:

  • Edexcel GCSE Physics P3 Ref 5049/01 from 11 June 2008
  • London Examinations GCE ‘O’ Level Ref 7540/01 from 25 January 2007

Educationalists could probably describe the differences between the papers more succinctly but I will have a go. I don’t have the right to reproduce the questions, but  here are my impressions

  • The questions each last for a nominal 6.8 minutes, but the O level has 11 questions and the GCSE has 9
  • The GCSE paper has a formula sheet for even the most basic formulae e.g. frequency = 1 /period. The O level paper has no formula sheet. Calculators are allowed in both exams.
  • The O level paper questions are abstract and numerical. The student has to be familiar with more theory than for the GCSE paper so as to recognise the relevant theory in an unfamiliar – and often abstract – context.
  • One GCSE Question shows a diagram of a cathode ray tube and the student is asked to label the cathode (1 mark) and anode (1 mark). There are then 4 multiple choice questions:
    • The electron beam is produced by the the heated (a) cathode (b) anode (c) screen
    • The inside of the tube contains (a) air (b) a gas (c) a vacuum
    • When electrons hit the screen (a) light waves (b) microwaves (c) radio waves are produced
    • When the heater current is increased the number of electrons produced will (a) decrease (b) increase (c) stay the same
  • This question has no numerical component; students can guess from a choice of just three answers,in general one of which is pretty obviously wrong; the third question is wrong because although it seeks the answer (a) the correct answer is actually (a) (b) and (c).
  • There is no direct equivalent O level question. But one related question involves the student placing Radio waves, X-rays, Infra Red, A missing component, Visible light, microwaves, gamma rays in the correct of wavelength and identifying the missing component – ultra violet light I think. The speed of light in a vacuum is then given and the students asked
    • State one other property common to all electromagnetic waves ( I think they are seeking the fact that they are transverse waves, or that they can be polarised)
    • They are the asked to calculate the frequency of radio waves with a wavelength of 2 x 10^3 metres. They need to remember velocity = frequency x wavelength and do a sum involving exponents

In the  GCSE question there is no place for the student who has the numerical ability – an ability which is key to all practicing physicists – to demonstrate their insight and skill. In contrast the O level actually tests abilities and knowledge that, frankly, I use every day in my work.

This comparison has not been exhaustive, and the GCSE paper I looked at was not without merit. But its questions were vague and qualitative in comparison with the straightforward simplicity of the O level questions. The O level was a real test of physics, while the GCSE physics tested only a basic level of comprehension and a little general scientific knowledge. Based on this – admittedly limited – investigation, I feel that my concerns are justified. These exams don’t really examine the ability to do physics at all.

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9 Responses to “GCSE Standards: I begin to learn”

  1. melindwr williams Says:

    Your conclusions about the two examination papers support my earlier comment (to “GCSE Physics: The lunatics have taken over the asylum”) that there is tension in our education system between education aimed at producing scientifically literate citizens and education to produce future scientists.
    The two examination papers that you cite illustrate this well.
    The GCSE is a broad, qualitative assessment that attempts to respond to the fact that science is a compulsory core subject at Key Stage 4. It needs to allow access to pupils of most abilities, most of whom will have no intention of studying the subject further.
    The CSE O-level paper is an example of an assessment that is no longer offered in this country, but does remain in a number of other countries. Its structure and content recalls the “old” O-level exams that were formarly taken, in the main, by grammar school pupils. In countries where it is still offered it is still frequently seen as a gateway to further study of the subject.
    Back in the UK, bureaucracy and the exam boards have spawned a range of supplementary and intermediate qualifications that attempt to bridge the gap between a general and a specific education.
    Add to this the requirement for schools to be able to demonstrate a good proportion of A* – C grades, and the question for teachers very quickly becomes, “How many passes can my department get?” rather than, “How can I best fit my pupils to meet their aspirations?”
    To overcome this, science teachers need to engage their pupils’ interests more effectively, pupils need to learn that effort and perseverance are required for sustained success in ANY subject, parents must be more active in challenging and supporting schools, and politicians must honestly face the truth that “success for all” does not mean the same diet for all.

  2. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Thanks for your comments: sorry to take so long to reply. I have been busy busy busy. In part pursuing this project and trying to get someone to take things seriously. What QCDA are presiding over is nothing short of cultural vandalism.

    You said “The GCSE is a broad, qualitative assessment that attempts to respond to the fact that science is a compulsory core subject at Key Stage 4. It needs to allow access to pupils of most abilities, most of whom will have no intention of studying the subject further.” Well I get this idea and I sympathise, but unfortunately the GCSE does not even do that. People (and I use the word deliberately instead of children) exposed to the lessons that lead to this qualification are not learning science, and they are not learning ‘about science’ either. They are learning how to gain marks when faced with arbitrary and quixotic choices.

    You also said ‘Add to this the requirement for schools to be able to demonstrate a good proportion of A* – C grades, and the question for teachers very quickly becomes, “How many passes can my department get?” rather than, “How can I best fit my pupils to meet their aspirations?”’

    Here I agree wholeheartedly. One teacher I spoke with explained that each year the head teacher examines the ‘residuals’ of the exam results – the subjects which have lower or higher marks than the school average. If any subject or teacher has a lower pass rate or marks then this is deemed to be the fault of the teacher – there is no alternative explanation sought. The teachers are under intense pressure and only the bravest and strongest can really seek to inspire students and meet their aspirations.

    And I also agree with you final comment. Success for all definitely does not mean the same diet for all. Schools have to recognise that children have different aptitudes and seek to stretch and challenge. The GCSE ‘process’ denies that to large numbers of children in state schools.

    All the best

    Michael

  3. Melindwr Williams Says:

    I agree with your final comment, Michael, that the GCSE denies stretch and challenge to some pupils. I also agree that it predisposes teachers to become fixed on teaching tips and tricks for good grades instead of teaching their subject in a way that would engage them if they were still learners themselves.
    All of the professional science organisations have expressed concern about this at one time or another, I believe, but the issue certainly hasn’t gone away. In the present political climate, I am not optimistic that the GCSE syllabi will change radically in the direction you are seeking. This shouldn’t stop people from lobbying, but be prepared for a long siege, because the GCSE structure encircles many vested interests.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      I am ready! And I am already engaged on this project, but my plans are top secret at the minute!

      I think that simply exposing some of these exam papers to wider public examination will result in outrage amongst physicists, and contempt among the public. As I said above, what QCDA have presided over is cultural vandalism.

  4. Melindwr Williams Says:

    Good luck, Michael. It will need a concerted approach from scientists and professional bodies, such as IoP, RSC and IoB if you want to influence GCSE science criteria as a whole.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      There is a body in existence. It is called SCORE which gives itself the subtitle Science Community Partnership Supporting Education

      http://www.score-education.org/

      Looking on the web site is interesting, but once again I get the feeling that these people have lost touch with reality.

      Their discussion of an analysis of last years GCSEs omits to mention that the level of the questions is abysmally low, the questions facile, and the subject stripped of many of its most interesting and useful parts.

      Their discussion of the difficulty of A levels is thorough – preferring comprehensiveness to comprehensibility – and concludes that Physics and Maths are harder than other subjects. Well…

      Anyway. I will do my best.

  5. Melindwr Williams Says:

    Hello Michael. I looked at SCORE’s report (http://www.score-education.org/downloads/gcse_project/SCORE_report_final.pdf) on the 2008 Science GCSE’s.
    You say ‘Their discussion of an analysis of last years GCSEs omits to mention that the level of the questions is abysmally low, the questions facile, and the subject stripped of many of its most interesting and useful parts.’ Actually, the report makes reference to the fact that some of the GCSE questions disd not adequately test science knowledge and understanding, that the extent to which mathematical ability is incorporated is inconsistent and, significantly, that there is often under-representation of the ‘How Science Works’ (http://curriculum.qca.org.uk/key-stages-3-and-4/subjects/key-stage-4/science/programme-of-study/index.aspx?tab=1) aspect of the curriculum. Taken together, all of these observations, IF ACTED UPON, have the potential to improve the challenge and interest of the GCSE syllabus.
    You say that the SCORE (Durham University) analysis of A-levels ‘concludes that Physics and Maths are harder than other subjects.’ Actually it indicates that examinations in the STEM subjects are harder than in others, as evidenced by statistical analysis of grades. Figure 24 does, indeed, indicate that, by this analysis, physics is, with the exception of general studies, the hardest subject. maths, though, is not as hard as IT, music, French, German, general studies, biology, chemistry and physics. Furthermore. there is an extended treatment (section 9) within the report of the conceptual issues raised by such an analysis, that make it difficult to arrive at any simplistic conclusions from the data – “It is clear from the statistical evidence presented in the previous chapters that there are significant differences in the grades achieved by apparently similar students in different subjects. This much is not controversial. Disagreement concerns the question of how – if at all – such differences can be interpreted, how much they matter and what, if anything, should be done about them.”
    It seems to me that to attempt to parse the relative intrinsic hardness of individual subjects is a distracting aside to the more important need to get to grips with ensuring that there is good teaching in all our schools that recognises and develops the aptitudes of all pupils so that examinations can be designed that really do allow each learner to show what they know, understand and can do, and be properly rewarded for it.

  6. Melindwr Williams Says:

    I posted a reply to your latest comment, Michael. but unfortunately it has disappeared. Maybe there’s a limiter for comment-length on WordPress. There probably should be.
    Thankyou for pointing out the existence of SCORE. I am not familiar with the organisation. The gist of my response was:
    You said, “Their discussion of an analysis of last years GCSEs omits to mention that the level of the questions is abysmally low, the questions facile, and the subject stripped of many of its most interesting and useful parts.”
    The SCORE report specifically identifies that the awarding bodies are: not consistent in the proportion of queestions that require the use of mathematics, or the level of mathematical skills required in their exams; under-representing the How Science Works http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/key-stages-3-and-4/subjects/key-stage-4/science/programme-of-study/index.aspx
    component of the 14 – 16 curriculum.
    By pointing out the need to improve these two aspects of their GCSE exam syllabi, it seems to me that SCORE has signalled that it too recognises that sometning must be done to increase the levels of demand on, and interest for pupils in science at this level of study.
    Yiou said, “Their discussion of the difficulty of A levels is thorough – preferring comprehensiveness to comprehensibility – and concludes that Physics and Maths are harder than other subjects. Well…”
    I agree with you about the readability of the Durham University paper on grading-severity
    http://www.score-education.org/2projects/grading_severity.htm
    – it’s a bit turgid isn’t it!
    Nevertheless, there are some important points to refer to. The paper does not set out to examine the intrinsic difficulty of subjects at A Level, but the difficulty of achieving grades in those subjects. As such it is a critique of the process of testing. It does conclude that the STEM subjects (those subjects required to support furthewr qualification in science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are among the most difficult subjects in which to achieve a good A Level grade, but that is not the same as saying that they are any harder, as subject disciplines, than any other subject. In fact, Figure 24 in the paper shows that, while general studies is as demanding as physics in terms of A-level success, and French, German, music and all the science subjects are ‘harder’ than maths. Add to this the fact that Section 9 of the paper is an extended critique of the pitfalls to be encountered in interpreting statistical analyses of exam performance and grades, and I think we might conclude that arguing about the relative ‘hardness’ of subjects is diversion. It is more important that lobbyists identify the need for good teaching and high expectation in all subjects, so that: teacher have to recognise learners’ aptitudes early and develop them skilfully; and examining bodies have to formulate tests that are efficient in capture accurately what pupils know. understand and csn do.

  7. Melindwr Williams Says:

    apologies, Michael, my mistake – you’ve now got 2 versions of the same reply!

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