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.
Tags: GCSE Standards