Black mark for examiners offering simplistic questions

30 June 2008

There is now clear evidence of an alarming gap between the high-quality teaching and curriculum material presently available for science lessons in schools in the UK, and the corresponding simplistic questions being set in national examinations for 14 year-olds.

Vast sums of money are being spent by government, industry and other educational bodies to enhance the excitement and delivery of STEM subjects, covering science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

But, says the Royal Society of Chemistry, this is being negated by examiners who are reinforcing low expectations, and setting the standards that the weaker schools teach to.

Royal Society of Chemistry chief executive Richard Pike said today:

"This is not just a matter of having questions of varying difficulty to accommodate a wide range of ability within the student cohort, which has become a feature of modern examinations. Rather, even questions tailored for an ability range such as tiers 3-6 in Key Stage 3 are far less demanding than reflected in the content of text books written specifically for this range.

"In one particular example, the author of a revision book identifies sixteen essential quantities, and their units, for understanding science at this level. These include length, electrical current and resistance, pressure, rotational moment, and the mathematical operations, either multiplication or division, for deriving some quantities from others.

This summer's examination, Dr Pike pointed out, refers to only four quantities with their units - length, volume, mass and temperature - while the most complex numerical demand is to find the mid-point between 4 and 8 in reading off a figure in the adjacent column. 

Other, multiple-choice questions have self-directing options that lead pupils quickly to the correct answer, with little more than general knowledge or the ability to read.
Extraordinarily, there are no questions on sources of energy (other than, what powers a solar-powered mole-scarer?) the environment, or the notion of speed.

No single step could address these circumstances better than the 3,000 additional, well-qualified science teachers promised by the government in 2006, says Richard Pike. 

"They would be more demanding of examiners, and some would eventually take over this important role.

"It would inject a visionary change and challenge into the entire educational system. This is now reportedly unlikely to be fulfilled, however, until 2014.

"For all the talk of the UK being a world leader in the 'knowledge economy', these will remain empty words without decisive action. This must be coupled with a black mark for the current disappointing raft of examiners in junior science, who have assessed with such little inspiration the delivery of education this year."

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