Science exams plans are a betrayal, says RSC

04 September 2007

As Britain's school pupils return from the summer break, a warning about declining examinations standards in this new academic year has been issued by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

RSC chief executive Richard Pike said: "Plans to make science questions easier represent a betrayal of education".

Dr Pike's remarks follow reports last week that awarding bodies are being urged to make exams simpler. 

It had been claimed that the Joint Council for Qualifications which represents awarding bodies across Britain, wants from next year, exam papers to consist of 70 per cent "low-demand questions", requiring simpler or multiple-choice answers which currently make up just 55 per cent of the paper. 

The move follows growing concern about lowering of science teaching standards at GCSE and grade inflation of exam results, which critics claim is the result of a government drive to reverse the long-term decline in the number of pupils studying science. 

Dr Pike said: "Rather than inspiring youngsters to take a greater interest in science, and addressing the reasons for success or failure in the learning process, this proposed move would leave students less equipped than ever." 

He asserted that science for many was already a series of unconnected pieces of information, exacerbated by the increasing use of tick-box, multiple-choice questions in examinations.

It was worth noting, he said, that in the 1960s around one-fifth of the 16-year-old cohort took the old GCE examinations, and it was considered important then to differentiate the results into nine grades, A-E and O being pass, and F-H fail. 

The highest grade A was awarded typically to the top 10 per cent of candidates, or just 2% of the cohort. Now, with nearly all 16-year olds taking GCSEs, the top fifth or 20% is just about covered by the A star and A grades. 

"The more intellectually demanding subjects attracting candidates of particularly high-ability show still higher success rates." 

Dr Pike added: "This is the chaos and ambiguity we have allowed our educational system to fall into. No other country has a nationwide, compulsory examination programme that attempts to measure, so coarsely, the performance of students across such a broad range of ability. 

"Moreover, if the rise in standards indicated by grades were substantive, educationalists the world over would be beating a path to our shores.  But they are not.

"We need to understand better why students pass or fail at science, and recognise that this depends on many factors, such as home environment, motivation, teaching and learning skills, hours devoted to study, appreciation of career opportunities, as well as innate intellectual ability. 

"That is why the Royal Society of Chemistry allocates more than 1 million each year to enhancing teaching skills in chemistry and in inspiring youngsters to look to careers drawing on the chemical sciences.

"Expanded to a grander scale, this is the way ahead, so that we have more well-qualified science graduates entering society, and going into the teaching profession through attractive conditions, to reinforce the science base. 

"The quick fix to make numbers look good, and have examination papers easier to do and easier to mark, will be counter-productive."

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