GCSEs are dumbed down, and getting worse

(Note for non-British people: a GCSE is an exam that schoolchildren in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sit when they are 16 years old).

The Times reports that examiners have been told to make GCSEs easier:

Make science easier, examiners are told
Examiners will have to set easier questions in some GCSE science papers, under new rules seen by The Times. A document prepared by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents awarding bodies across Britain, says that, from next year, exam papers should consist of 70 per cent “low-demand questions”, requiring simpler or multiple-choice answers. These currently make up just 55 per cent of the paper.

The move follows growing concern about the “dumbing down” of science teaching 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 Sinclair [director of the JCQ] added that the changes would help to stop children being “turned off” by science.

“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. They can only have that by being allowed to attempt questions which are at their level . . . It is making exams accessible to candidates.”

So, there you have it. Exams must be made easier, so that thick kids can have a “positive experience”. We can’t shatter the fragile egos of the poor dears, now can we? It’s Alice in fucking Wonderland, where all have won, and all must have prizes.

At this point you may be thinking, “hang on, maybe the existing exams are very hard, and making them easier is the right thing to do.” Well, you’d be wrong. What follows are some questions from an actual CGSE exam (The Edexcel GCSE Physics P1b reference 5010 taken on 9 November 2006, to be precise). Before you look at the questions, please bear in mind that this is what the exam is like before the proposed dumbing-down:

Question 3

question 3

Note that you need to understand nothing about physics to answer the question. The boxes could just as well have been labelled “pixies”, “goblins”, “dragons”, “elves”, “mermaids”, “satyrs” and “unicorns”, and it would have been exactly the same question.

Question 5

question 5

????!!! I can only assume the examiners intended this as a spot of light relief. Again, no physics knowledge required here.

Question 26

question 26

Before you accuse me of just picking the easy questions, this one is from the difficult part of the exam. As with the other questions, it requires no knowledge of physics whatsoever to answer.

(The actual exam is here (1 MB pdf))

Personally I have an exam I’d like to set the people responsible for this atrocity. It would contain the following questions:

1. Are you ashamed of the damage you’ve done to British education?

2. Do you really believe that Britain can be competitive in the 21st century if the system is producing dumbed down children only capable of passing dumbed down exams?

3. Do you think that patronising less-able pupils, by giving them a pretend exam to pass and a worthless pretend certificate when they’ve passed it, helps them or anyone else?

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53 Responses to GCSEs are dumbed down, and getting worse

  1. David Singer says:

    I had a look at this paper and it depressed me. There is next to no physics in it. I don’t think this is encouraging students, I think it’s insulting them. Worse even than the trivialities are th questions that don’t seem to have a good answer available:

    “30. Which of these do scientists think is moving away from the origin of the Big Bang?”

    Just where would the origin of the Big Bang be?

  2. cabalamat says:

    Lots of questions are similarly badly worded. E.g. question 33 quotes someone saying “if we can find more mass in the form of dark matter, the Universe will continue to expand.” (my emphasis).

    Now it may be the case that the Universe’s future expansion depends on how much dark matter there is; but it certainly is not the case that it depends on how much humans can detect, as if the universe suddenly goes “oh look, those insignificant primates on planet 3X89PV453C5Q32T5/3 has just detected dark matter, I’d better expand some more”.

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  4. Joel Knight says:

    I agree with that these exams are atrocities and insulting. If it helps anyone feel better, the UK is not the only country that is dumbing down their education system. I’m from the US (currently teaching science in the UK), and it’s happening over there, too.

    In case you missed it, I ran across an excellent letter about dumbing down the physics GCSE exam this morning; follow this link to read it: http://www.wellingtongrey.net/articles/archive/2007-06-07–open-letter-aqa.html

    On a more positive note, you CAN do something about this trend in physics ecuation: sign a petition asking the prime minister to do something about it. There’s a link at the bottom of Mr. Grey’s article (above), or you can follow this link to view/sign the petition directly: http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/physicsedu/

    If you agree, please ask your friends and colleagues to sign it as well. Hurry, though; the petition closes to signatures in June.

    Joel Knight

  5. cabalamat says:

    I’vre signed the petition. Thanks for pointing it out.

  6. Alex says:

    I have been taking my gces recently (including this paper (including this one) and i got an A. I was astounded because i pay hardly any attention in physics. Obviously they are gettin too easy, and im personally afraid of how society is going to end up if it carries on in this vain :[

  7. Gary says:

    This is not fair!!
    Is that what the papers are like in England?
    Cause in Northern Ireland they are completly different!
    Here’s a link to the physics paper frm 2006 in N.I

    • Princess says:

      Trust me this is not what the papers are like in England. I sit the AQA certificate in physics(IGCSE) papers and they definitely require full knowledge of physics which is why so many students perform badly in them. The top marks are usually in the mid seventies region. We have a mixture of short answer questions and extended response questions when we have to apply our knowledge in a completely novel context but their are no multiple choice questions. I fail to understand how people compare the papers with the old GCSEs because their grade boundaries were so low. I opted to enter the GCSE physics challenge which is by the British Physics Olympiad and if the thousands of students who enter had not had to learn physics then they would all fail wouldn’t they.
      Granted the papers are not impossibly difficult but if they taught you everything now then why bother continuing to higher education? And for all the old folks out there, I know exactly how your papers were and I know that the difficulty has been exaggerated.
      Check out these papers:

      Click to access AQA-SCIENCE-IGCSE-PHYS1-W-SQP.PDF

      Click to access AQA-SCIENCE-IGCSE-PHYS2-W-SQP.PDF

      and a gcse physics challenge paper:

      Click to access BPhO_PC_2011_final.pdf

  8. cabalamat says:

    Is that what the papers are like in England? Cause in Northern Ireland they are completly different!

    Bear in mind that the English physics paper I show is a general science paper, and you’re comparing it to a single-subject physics exam, which will have more physics in it.

  9. Matt says:

    A few points to make here:

    1) I think one of the reasons why the papers are “getting easier” is the fact that more exams are now by multiple choice, largely because of the difficulty recruiting exam markers. In fact, a multiple choice paper can be marked automatically once scanned in, reducing costs.

    2) Bear in mind that this is only one part of the qualification. The entire qualification consists of 6 x 20 minutes exams (two for each science of physics, chemistry and biology) and three internal assessments (again one for each science) like this here:

    Click to access GCSE_Science_assessment_activity___Phy.pdf

    3) Science is rapidly becoming a Cindarella subject in primary schools due to the endless focus on numeracy and literacy. It’s not providing any inspiration for the future. The consequences are a demand to make the subject syllabuses more “relevant” to the modern world.

    4) Physics uses a lot of maths. It’s hardly surprising that question 26 is essentially a maths question in a physics context. There are slightly harder questions further into the paper.

    I don’t doubt that the exams have certainly got easier over the years, but my final point is simply to say that I suspect the old style O-Levels were probably set at a far too high a level for 16 year olds way back when, and rightly much of this is now in the A-Level.

    • David says:

      “Science is rapidly becoming a Cindarella subject”
      Who hasn’t got a GCSE is spelling “Cinderella”, then? :-)

      • joe says:

        Spelling words like cinderella are too advanced or GCSE mate, It’s even beyond A level. Having said that being able to tie your own shoe laces are beyond A level

  10. Matt says:

    A little bit more reading…

    What I described above would give you one GCSE. I understand that most students follow what is called the “dual award” science GCSE – which involves not just the GCSE Science syllabus (easier, and what you have got a sample of above) but also GCSE Additional Science.

    Additional Science is a level above Science. It is harder but not by an enormous degree. These two qualifications result in two GCSEs. In total, the “dual award” (roughly) comprises of six internal assessments (don’t think any of these are multiple choice) and 12 exams (at least half of which are multiple choice).

    (source: http://360science.edexcel.org.uk/VirtualContent/95173/UG018535_Science_2101new.pdf )

    It seems to me that what the science GCSE syllabuses offer these days are breadth, not depth: a great deal of topics covered to a somewhat superficial level. To me, that is about right for a 16 year old. People who want to study it to a higher standard then could go on to the A-Level.

    Right, that’s enough from me :-)

  11. cabalamat says:


    to deal with your points one at a time:

    1. multiple choice exams needn’t be easier — obviously it depends on what the questions are

    2. Indeed true. However, that’s no excuse for the physics part of the exam not to contain much physics

    3. I agree thast subjects are not being taught in an inspiring way. Eg a good way to teach how motors and dynamos work would be to get the kids to make them. And this could be done in the exams too, e.g. have a practical exam where one has to make a motor or electronic circuit to do a particular task.

    4. even questions that contain maths should contain some physics too. I have two unrelated gripes about this exam (1) it is too easy, and (2) many of the questions have no physics content. Note that it is quite possible for a question to be easy and have phsics content, e..g here’s one: “A man went to the top of a tall building, and threw a glass from it. The glass landed on concrete 30 m below. What happened to the glass?” This is a legitimate physics question (albeit a rather obvious one) bewcause to answer it you need to know something about how objects behave in nature.

    O levels might have been too hard for some 16 year olds but so what? The whole idea of a “one size fits all” approach where everyone does the same exam when they’re 16 is silly anyway.

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  13. Alan says:

    Oh my…thats just terrible! Thats really insulting peoples education that is.
    Edexcell is shit, im doing one of their papers for GCSE Double award ICT, and nothing at all in there is to do with ict, its just a very big glorified english test, then along with that they the mark scheme is so picky that its almost impossible to get a mark for anything.
    The most computerish thing that is in the paper is to do with databases, but thats a tiny section of the paper, the rest is just an english test.

    They really need to sort out these tests. But what I think is that, they havn’t made them simpler, theive made them confusing and stupid, and then been very picky on the mark scheme. Its not just the people sitting them who hate them, all the teachers do.

  14. George Carty says:

    Is the consolidation of British exam boards to blame? Would we be better off if we still had NEAB, Midland, SEG, London etc?

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  16. James says:

    I don’t think it is at all fair to say that ALL GCSE exams are getting easier at all. For instance take this paper, if a pupil answers these first 17 questions they can only get a maximum of C. From 17 onwards they can then progress on to the “higher grades”. Also this paper is one of 10 different tests that have to be conpleted in order to get a GCSE!!! This is a mere 10% equivilent!

    It is in my opinion however that edexcel doesn’t help itself either – especially with the moon question . The wording of questions, could put the pupil themselves off and arguably lead them to guessing a different answer.

    This is one exam board, not all of them. You can’t sum up the hard work done by pupils as so minute! Its simply not fair.

    • sjs says:

      Yeah it’s all in the same vain(sic).

      You well know that these exams have little bearing on the overall mark.

      Govmint shill or what?

  17. fjfjfj says:

    What is the answer to the eclipse question?

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  19. Ian says:

    I hate to be controversial, but I can see some real value in question 5. It’s asking the students to demonstrate an understanding of the nature of scientific enquiry and evidence. I’d say getting 16-year-olds to understand that science is a method for uncovering information is better than just getting them to memorize a set of facts. This latter approach leads to the far-too-common situation where people think ‘science’ is just a fixed body of knowledge rather than an approach to garnering new knowledge.

  20. Elisa says:

    I blogged about this a few weeks ago when various fears were raised, before Ofqual went and confirmed those fears. A few interesting links in here:


    Worst of all is the truly shocking Edexcel chemistry syllabus, which asks: “Why are ‘chemical’ formulae such as ‘J2O’ and ‘O2’ so good for advertising?” I really wish I was making this up but have a look and you’ll see it’s there on page 39:

    Click to access UG018535_Science_2101new.pdf

  21. Clairus says:

    Ooh I’m getting riled up….
    There are several exam boards who offer a variety of science qualifications.
    All children should have some science education, but an equivalent to the old O level is not appropriate for everyone.

    All children should be able to achieve some level of success – this does not mean exams should be easier so they all get Cs. It is not ridiculous to want all children to have a positive experience, and a positive experience does not have to mean they all get high grades. I teach one group whose target grades (based on previous attainment) are F and G grades. The real issue is that a GCSE at this grade, although this is fulfilling the child’s potential, is relatively worthless. This is one reason why the new diplomas were developed – the idea is more hands on and work-based learning with embedded functional skills. Time will tell if they are the answer.
    For middle ability pupils, they can do a Core science GCSE followed by an Applied science GCSE or continue in a more academic way with the study of Additional science GCSE. At my school we also are going to offer BTEC as an alternative second qualification in science.

    So ther’s lots of different courses, I do think the Core/Additional pathway (most similar to old double award) is slightly easier, but I can tell you the A level certainly is NOT getting easier. It just means there is a big jump between GCSE and AS level.

    For the high ability we offer Triple Science (separate GCSEs in Biology, Chemistry and Physics). These actually overlap with some of the A level content and most definitely do stretch even the most intelligent children (ie predicted 11 A* grades). So although SOME exams are letting us down, not ALL science education is a watered down uninspiring experience. (And just because the exams are not as rigorous as you would want does not mean the learning experience was unsatisfactory).

    I suspect many of the example easy questions are taken from Foundation tier papers which have to cater for students achieving all the way down to grade G – just becuase the use of this standard of qualification is debatable, doesn’t mean the exam board is totally at fault. A variety of pathways and courses is the answer.

  22. Jonathan says:

    This is the sort of thing that makes me thank serendipity for the fact that when I took it, it was on the AQA specification, not the Edexcel one.

  23. Karen says:

    Alex (6), please tell me your comment was a joke.

    What kind of illiterate wrote this exam? There seem to be two kinds of questions here: 1) way too easy and 2) so poorly written that there is either more than one correct answer or none at all.

    Fjfjfj’s uncertainty (comment 17 above) results from this second kind of question. The eclipse question is so poorly worded, and its answer choices so vague, that even though I’m pretty sure the ‘correct’ answer is C, one could make reasoned arguments for A, B and D. Similar examples abound in the pdf copy of the exam (e.g. question 6).

    This exam reminds me of the form I recently filled in for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. One item on the form said “list all absences of three months or more, no matter how short”.

    p.s. cabalamat, your non-British readers will not only need you to explain what GCSEs are, but they will also not be used to hearing that one ‘sits’ instead of ‘takes’ them.

  24. Karen says:

    Could someone please put us all out of our misery and provide the ‘correct’ answers to these exam questions?

  25. Chris says:

    For the old school (like me) it should be pointed out that in our day we did O levels in biology, physics and chemistry. All this is now covered in one exam – Science. This means that any, say, physics content will never be as hard as it used to be.

    On another front, O levels were designed to only be passed by pupils who were quite good at a subject. As far as I remember it, the grades were adjusted so that the A,B,C etc grades were only given to a certain percentage of the examinees. These days there is a general requirement that more people leave school with qualifications. Thus something has to give. We can’t keep the exams deliberately hard and also expect more people to pass them.

    BTW, I thought that the moon never disappeared even during total lunar eclipses due to refracted sunlight passing through the earths atmosphere.

  26. Smowton says:

    Seems to me like you’re trusting the Times’ reporting too readily. Observe the quote they attribute without context to the head of the JCQ:

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

    Now, as I recall, physics, like many other GCSE subjects, is assessed via two papers: Foundation and Higher. On the Foundation paper you can only achieve grades G-C; on the Higher paper you can only achieve C-A. (If you take the higher paper and score lower than C you are “ungraded,” i.e. you should have taken the other paper as we can’t reasonably measure you based on this one).

    Therefore it looks as though the JCQ head was arguing that the foundation paper should be easy because it’s trying to divide people into varying grades of rubbishness, which seems fair enough.

    Clearly he can’t have been referring to the Higher paper, because as you can only be graded U, C, B, A or A*, most students cannot be getting D-G grades. These in fact need to be made harder because there is a high density of A grades at present.

    As to whether the D-G paper needs to be made easier, the important thing is what is the current grade distribution? If they’re all down in the G end of the scale then the paper isn’t serving its purpose of differentiating skill levels.

    Given that the Times mentioned none of this, I would assume it’s going for populist, sensationalist reporting. It’s possible that it’s right anyhow, but that certainly shouldn’t be assumed.

  27. peterd102 says:

    I have done the Science GCSE double award that this paper, which i assume is genuine, is part of. I too am appalled at the simplicity of the foundation questions, but have to counter that to reach anything higher than a C you have to do the higher questions which are more difficult and more physics based, though are still quite easy I admit. Also as said before these are a small percentage of the paper and have to be done in 20 minutes.

    The trouble with dumbing down, or rather trying to make science more “relevant” and attract more people to the cources is that it won’t work. Science still has, and will always have a geeky/nerdy quality to it. By dumbing down they are trying to give everyone a level of scientific literacy but are doing it in wholly the wrong way, teaching basic concepts rather than say evidence, evaluation skills ect. They also risk alienating the real geeks who are interested in science, and by not giving geeks like me a taste of the higher level physics they will lose any chance of producing brilliant scientists. That is a truly appalling thought.

  28. Smowton says:

    Now reading the paper, some question-specific observations:

    1. These are all wrong, which is troubling. There really ought to be a planet labelled somewhere; otherwise C is simply supernaturally orbiting nothingness.

    3. Indeed, terrible question.

    5. I don’t share your objection about “nothing to do with physics,” simply because there should be *some* questions about the generalised scientific method. This is a horrible execution of that, since none of the answers really help resolve the question at hand, but still. I’d argue that there should be a seperate paper about this sort of issue of experimental method which applies to all branches of science, probably as a pre-requisite for any other science paper.

    6. Ecccch. Worded horribly. “Which element of the eye admits light?”

    7. Now this is a different class of terrible. Why the hell should anybody know that retinal identification gets used at airports for a physics exam?

    11. Ergh, here’s one of my least favourite things about secondary school exams: the assumption that you have no other source of knowledge. “The stage between yellow and white”? I presume they mean G-class star –> red giant –> white dwarf, but black-body curves being what they are, white stars needn’t be end-of-life. But of course you don’t know that.

    (aside) I love their politically correct naming. Chei and Jas.

    18. Ergh. “Frequency and wavelength are different” is the most horrible correct answer possible. Worse still is that he *could* determine frequency using a measure of distance assuming he already knew the speed of sound in whatever medium he was dealing with. His principle obstacle here is his difficulty in directly observing localised pressure variation, which he could probably get around using scattering experiments, but again the examiners assume the candidate has merely memorised the syllabus here. The whole question is a horrible train wreck.

    19. It’s all so… wrong. Why would you even bother teaching about signal coding if you’re going to teach flagrantly untrue statements about how “digital” is magic?

    20. See above, and also horrible use of “you can”. I could hear the same damn frequencies before I bought a CD player. Even with this pedantry aside, teaching that “CDs have better sound quality” or “superior frequency range” is again clearly teaching poorly founded bollocks. It also seems to encourage the notion that “digital technology” is magic.

    24. eccch again with the horrible wording of the question. Clearly they wanted to say “which of these indicates the largest force?” but the line about “thrust makes it accelerate” seems to suggest they’re asking which has the largest acceleration. Again the route to success is guessing what word the examiners were tiptoeing around in the course of writing the question.

    26. This actually does need a little physics knowledge- basically they’re asking “what is an orbital period”.

    27. Argh damnit! A rocket EMITS gases! It might “produce” them, depending on what you mean by that utterly vague word. I wish these things were copyedited by somebody who knew what they were talking about.

    31. Jas is back! He, she or it gets everywhere in this damn paper! Also is it really necessary to include the line “Imran and Jas discuss how the universe has developed”? It’s beginning to feel like Look Around You.

    32. Yowch! Again the horrible editing! This provides evidence that THAT SPECIFIC GALAXY is moving away from SOME POINT OF REFERENCE the book was talking about. Again with having to guess which falsehood the examiner believes.

    Hmm. So I started out their expecting to find you’d cherry-picked the most awful questions. It appears the paper really is irretrievably bad.

    However I stand by my assertion above that the JCQ guy is near-certainly suggesting that the foundation questions here struggle to differentiate the just-quite-thick from the really-very-thick-indeed.

  29. Teek says:

    yuck, what a crappy paper. as smowton says, it isn’t even the odd question that’s poor, it’s the whole lot that need to be thrown out.

    we must remember, however, that the exam is set to the syllabus, and so the crappiness of the former reflects that of the latter, which is crappy owing to politics. There is a real battle going on in the teaching profession and in Whitehall wrt science teaching – do we make science easy so that everybody does it to some (necessarily crappy) standard, or do we teach it properly and accept that it’s not for all…?! it’s a tough nut to crack, but I think most people with their head screwed on the right way agree that this paper shows how not to go about it either way!

    [apologies for overuse of the word ‘crappy,’ I’m just grumpy…]

  30. Hettie says:

    “I too am appalled at the simplicity of the foundation questions, but have to counter that to reach anything higher than a C you have to do the higher questions which are more difficult and more physics based, though are still quite easy I admit.”

    You mean higher than D…

    Can someone explain why is it important to have a test that measures how bad someone is at science?

  31. KD says:

    How thoroughly depressing.

    I’m sure I sat a test like this when I was 12. I sat my GCSE’s in 1991 and I didn’t struggle too much with them then, but I’m pretty sure that they were a lot better written than this monstrosity of a paper.

    It’s obviously been this way for a while and this mentality is pervading A-level and higher education, because in some recent graduates I’ve interviewed, some boasting straight-A a-levels and first or upper-second class degrees, there is little evidence of the enquiring mind or of the capacity to think, research, or otherwise uncover information.

    It’s a tragedy because teaching and science in particular can/should be fun (but that doesn’t mean ‘easy’). It’s partly down to the teaching (I had a superb physics teacher which made it so much more enjoyable) but if the questions are this simplistic is it any wonder kids aren’t enthused by the subjects they study.

    The other side of this, to venture slightly off-topic, is the grading schemes. People might be better educated than they were 50 years ago (although I suspect not) but the distribution of average intelligence has not improved (or has only fractionally at most). Consequently the only way that one should be judging exam papers is by fractional grading. If you are going to say that grade “A” (we don’t need all this A* and A** bollox unless it is going to show true excellence) represents the top grade of intellect or ability in a subject, then that should be the top x% in the score list of candidates who sat the exam. How is this not obvious – you CAN’T have 40% of people sitting the exam getting an “A” and 95% of people getting “A-C” (unless that is just a manipulation of the figure of all those who sat the ‘higher’ paper and consequently only very few got “U” grades) and hope to have any valuable distinction made between the very best, good, average and poor.

    Top 1% – A*
    1-10% – A
    10-22% – B
    22-45% – C
    45-68% – D
    68-90% – E
    Bottom 10% – U

    Of course, this would be elitist, separating people on ability. Let’s be honest, if you are going for a job where the only requirement is maths and english at C or above, is there any point in giving four grades to represent the lowest levels of ability or application? At the other end, if we had this level of rigour in grading for A level we wouldn’t have Oxbridge and the Russell Group looking for other ways of selecting undergraduate admissions. If you were an admissions tutor and someone came to you with 4 A* grades on this system, you’d sit up and take note. Under the current system that would tell me that they had bothered to revise, which is massively unfair on the brightest.

    • cabalamat says:

      you CAN’T have 40% of people sitting the exam getting an “A” and 95% of people getting “A-C” (unless that is just a manipulation of the figure of all those who sat the ‘higher’ paper and consequently only very few got “U” grades) and hope to have any valuable distinction made between the very best, good, average and poor.

      Better still, abolish grades altogether, and replace them with two numbers. One would be the raw %age of the exam they got right, the other would be the %age of the other people taking the exam they did better than.

      • KD says:

        I’m not sure about the first indicator, it doesn’t really tell you that much, other than how easily or otherwise the questions were or how tough the marking scheme was. If all the averages are up in the 80% and you get 90%, that isn’t as significant as the averages being in the 50s and you getting 90%. I like the other idea, but perhaps it’s too tough on those outside at the lower end of the scale.

  32. re question 5 – I suspect that any child who really understands science and the scientific method will waste more time on this question than a child who hasn’t a clue. So this isn’t just dumbing down, it is levelling down.

    See my post on Hard Science.

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  34. Constantin says:

    Well, in the States we are far “ahead” of the UK on this particular curve: http://www.ipacweb.org/files/nassau/ibd.html

  35. oldcodger says:

    There are no correct answers to question 1 on the paper.

    I take it the answer which will be marked ‘correct’ is C. However, it is simply wrong. Unless it’s orbiting around a stationary planet, this will not be its path.

    I suspect the exam board would come up with some handwaving answer to justify answer C, but I’ll give them a very large sum of money if they can find a moon which travels around a star in that fashion.

  36. Steve Jones says:

    Firstly, only 20 minutes to test somebody’s understanding? Are attention spans that short these days?

    Just to pick the first question the correct answer on the orbit of a moon is, presumably “c”. However, it’s nonsense drawn like that – if there is a moon it is orbiting a planet which is, itself orbiting a star. The planet isn’t stationery with a moon following a nice, neat circular orbit around a fixed point. It’s following a much more complex pattern which is a compound of the orbit around its planet and the planet’s progression around the star. Indeed on their basis that moons follow a cicular orbit around a fixed point, D is equally as valid as C. They haven’t shown a planet, just another labelled “orbit” (and orbit A passes quite a long way from the centre of C which is another mistake). I suppose they might argue the diagram is on a rotating frame of reference stationery relative to whatever planet is following path A hence C being a circle…

    Question 19 & 20 are just nonsense because they fail totally to distiguish between the fundamental differences of analogue and digital technology. It just reads like marketing bylines. That’s besides the point that no radio station broadcasts digital as such – digital radio system broadcast analogue signals, just that the analogue is modulated using digital data using schemes like QAM.

    Now this is not to say that it isn’t essential to have simplified, constrained questions within physics problems. It is, but when I was taught physics it was with an understanding of the limitations and approximations that have to be made. That’s an extremely important lesson in physics – it’s incredibly powerful, but works best on smaller, isolated problems. By trying to make the subject “more relevant” by introducing “real world” problems, then they are forced to gloss over the real complications. Hence all this rubbish about keyboards, digital music, iris scanners and so on that has precious little to do with physics. Even points like UV causing skin cancer only make sense in physics if you understand why. That is what happens when a high energy photo is absorbed. Outside that scope it isn’t physics at all – it is a rule learnt as an arbitrary fact.

  37. Joan says:

    I did the OCR Double Science GCSE in 2004. I did the Edexcel Physics A-level in 2005-6. I am now a 3rd year physics undergraduate, working on my final project in Physics Education.

    I always feel that there should be two sides to this – one, that saying that science GCSEs and A-levels are being dumbed down is sensationalist, and people have always said “oh, well back in my day, we did this this and this.. kids these days don’t know anything”. This is obviously partly true, as the papers do always have a field day when exam results come in, and lots of that is bound to be sensationalist by default, and people have always said that it was ‘better back in the old days’ etc. etc.

    However, side two: papers like this. It’s obvious they’re common sense questions and very little to do with actual physics. Coming through the system, it’s been very obvious that the training needed for a physics degree was a maths A-level, hands down… physics GCSE and to some extent physics A-level are just not adequate preparation for an undergraduate degree in the subject, and the jump from A-level to undergraduate level is pretty huge, despite the efforts of the university to ease us into it.

    Some of the academics in the department, who have seen many years of physics students come and go, are very well placed to see the decline in standards e.g. the lack of ‘toolbox’ equations known by the students, and the need to scrap parts of the old first year course as it was ‘too much work’ for the poor, overworked, first years…

    I do believe that students today, as ever, do not get the credit they deserve. If they’re treated like they’re idiots, they’ll believe they are and act that way. If they have self-belief, work hard, and support at school and home, I believe they could all achieve a pass (C) at GCSE, at least. I think it’s terrible that huge swathes of children are written off as ‘never going to get anything above an F’, herded together and patronised until they turn off completely.

  38. Steve Jones says:

    It’s absolutely right not to blame the students for this – that belongs with the authorities.

    There was always an element of having to have a levelling period at the start of Physics degree courses. Back in 1973 when I started my degree at Imperial College a good part of the first year was spent on that (largely on maths). Now that all courses are four years then that has increased further.

    However, I don’t think that it is primarily those going on to study the subject at University that are being mislead. It’s those made to go through this rather superficial exercise who now find themselves with a discredited qualification. Frankly, a very large portion of this paper doesn’t test scientific knowledge or techniques in any real sense. Questions about where iris recognition is used might have their place, but not as a way of testing scientific understanding. At best some of this stuff is an appreciation of technology, at worst, a rote-testing lowest-common-demoninator complete turn-off. The problem is in the syllabus, and this intention to make science “relevant” and “accessible” by dealing with superficialities rather than deeper understanding which is what is wrong. On this paper fully one-third of the questions in the harder section are about geology and earthquakes. Yes there are bits with wider relevance – the calculation of wavelengths from frequencies and propogation speed. But most are just simple rote-remembered facts. Maybe the syllabus includes understanding why P waves are refracted by the earth’s core (a genuine bit of physics, with a connection to optics), but this paper doesn’t test that understanding at all.

    Physics is inherently a bottom-up, reductionist subject. It isn’t a primarily observational subject. It depends on models, on mathematics, and a deeper understanding of fundamental principles. This paper indicates that this is not what is being taught. I suspect time spent on training students how to eliminate the unlikely answers would give a better return than actually learning the subject based on this.

    Also, to be controversial, if there are pupils not suited to the more mathematical and academic approach to scientific study, then for heaven sakes, we shouldn’t be pretending that they are being trained in something they are manifestly not being tested on. Call it appreciation of technology, or technology in society but don’t pretend what it isn’t. Personally I would rather that a deeper understanding of science itself was the aim – but they seem to have given up on that. I should also add, that I have a particular issue with the BBC’s coverage of science on TV which, itself, has gone through a decade-long love affair with tabloidisation and sensationalising of the subject area.

  39. Richard L says:

    The questions are terrible.

    Q10 states that Jupiter is too cold to support life.

    I thought that the problem with applying the Miller-Urey experiment, which suggested life could have evolved there, was that it would actually have got too hot in the interior of the atmosphere.

  40. cabalamat says:

    @39 Richard L: The questions are terrible. Q10 states that Jupiter is too cold to support life. I thought that the problem with applying the Miller-Urey experiment, which suggested life could have evolved there, was that it would actually have got too hot in the interior of the atmosphere.

    As you and others have pointed out, many of these questions assume things that are contrary to reality. It appears the the people who wrote this science exam know very little science! I would estimate that over 50% of the questions either don’t require any scientific knowledge to solve them, or contain scientific inaccuracies.

  41. Kantata says:

    I still have my ‘O’ Level science papers from 1964 – the golden age when school exams were TOUGH. Nothing of the sort. If you had a good retentive memory as I had you’d pass with flying colours. To show you actually understood the stuff you were scribbling like mad onto the lined answer books was not necessary. Don’t be too quick to condemn the current GCSE science papers: they have to test not only recall, but understanding and data analysis along with a mountain of topics in bio, chem & phys. Stuff in current science GCSE papers I only came across at A level or else University in late 60s eg. structure of DNA, natural selection, atomic structure, periodic table to name just two.

  42. Kantata says:

    Whoops – sorry – to name just four (I had thought of some more).

  43. keyleih moore says:

    kids are under enough pressure , the exams are relitively hard , if there were more qualified science teachers the exam should get harder but as kids dont learn much from poor teachers the easy tests are fine as kids wont find them easy

    • Dev Sen says:

      So thats alright then? And how were going to compete against Japan, Germany, China, India …..?

  44. Dev Sen says:

    I did what was called O Levels (similar to IGCSEs) in the 60s. I have recently started giving science private tutions. I have students doing Aqa and OCR exams at GCSE level Aqa is the most dumbed down. With most science questions not requiring science knowledge rather some basic maths and common sense.

    But the situation is different at A levels especially OCR Salters is quite tough and IMHO any of the GCSE would not properly prepare students to this course properly.

    But like everything else the politically correct social scientists from Oxbridge who seem to be developing our education policies our education is longer about education it is about targets, Ofsted reports, filling in forms. All my students come to private tuition because their teachers just don’t have enough time to teach and without discipline – long relegated to dust bin by especially this government our kids are not being prepared to compete in this increasingly highly competitive world. I sent some of the Aqa papers to my folks in India and students in primary schools could easily do most of the questions. Shameful and frightening!

  45. Georgina says:

    If only those questions came up on my exam. No instead they decided to write a bunch of rubbish that isn’t even taught to us and in our chemistry exam they wrote four of five Biology questions and around 10 additional science questions on a core science test paper.

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