Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual

Ofqual, the newly formed watchdog for exam standards, has assessed a variety of GCSE and A Level course assessments, and Physics has been found wanting. The grades awarded have been too high for the understanding demonstrated in the exams and there are now students on A Level courses who have an inflated expectation of grades in the summer. Some are in reality so poor they are unlikely to pass.

Despite repeated ministerial assurances that standard have not slipped, it seem that there is less demand in the 2007 Physics GCSE papers than in 2002. Even the head of Ofqual, Ms Tattersall, said in the autumn that she was confident that there had been no dumbing down, but she did what politicians never seem to do — she commissioned research to check. And the first research was published on Friday.

The Findings

It turns out that at the key grades of A and B candidates do not need to perform as well now as they did in the past. The level of challenge is less because the questions require lower order thinking skills, and in many cases can be answered without any Physics knowledge. There is also a greater reliance on objective type (multiple choice) questions.

Of course, this is no surprise to anyone who has been following the constant flow of independent research on the issue, especially from Prof Smithers and co at Buckingham University. Jim Knight, who has consistently ignored this research, claiming that inflating grades were solely due to the fact that the nations students and teachers were the best we've ever had, will find it harder to ignore the Ofqual findings. He had a letter on Thursday warning him what had been found, and he has kept his head down since.

Solutions and Problems

The exam boards have been instructed to change the exams to make them more challenging for this summer, stop awarding marks to incorrect answers and retrain their exam writers, but it is quite short notice.

In any case, they can't change much because there can't be allowed a sudden change in pass rates. So the easy questions get made more challenging, but the pass marks get lowered to compensate. Ofqual gets a rosy glow of self congratulation. The government takes the credit for a system well managed. And the more things change the more they stay the same.

Especially for the students.

Unrealistic Targets

A Level Physics has been largely consistent in its challenge, so the problem moves onto the Sixth Forms. The difficulty is that entry onto A Levels depends on GCSE grades, for Physics that means GCSE Physics and Maths. If the requirement is a grade C in Physics (or Science, which uses the same Physics papers that were assessed in the report) then we are allowing weaker students onto the course than in the past if those grades are less of a challenge.

And those students are given target grades based on what previous students with the same grades achieved in the past, and if standards are not consistent then those targets will become progressively less achievable. Targets must be reasonable if they are to serve any proper purpose, such as for motivating the students into some action after exams, or for assessing the performance of the teachers.

Already the system is being subverted in colleges. If a student meets the minimum GCSE requirements for a course (in the case of Physics at my college, it is five grade Cs or better, including a B in Maths and C in Science or Physics) then they are enrolled. A grade prediction is generated based on the mean GCSE grade, and a bit is added for encouragement. However, some students would get a prediction of a grade U (a fail), so these are changed to grade E+. It wouldn't do to let the student know that 90% of students entering with the same GCSE grade failed the course, would it?

The students of course, ignorant of the amount of effort needed just to pass, carry on in the time honoured way of just attending the lessons and doing no study. Until the day the first exam results arrive, they blunder on hoping that the class tests were wrong. When the 'fail' slip arrives, there is disbelief. They were let on the course, so they must be clever —how could they fail?

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The Doomed War on Fatties

The government's War on Fatties is doomed to failure because it is focused on the wrong issues.

People have poor diets for all sorts of psychological, social and financial reasons, but I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that inactivity and a diet of chocolate bars, crisps and chips is actually good for your health. Yet the government insists that re-education is the solution, and all would be thin if only the fatties would listen to them.

Especially the children — if only the government could get to them before their parents taught them bad habits.

So it becomes another job for schools.

Schools — The Universal Solution

So now children come home from primary school full of the official dogma, pointing out bad foods on their dinner plates, and waving a letter offering detail of the next fitness challenge. Sports days have lost any element of fun and competition, to be replaced by anodyne keep fit activities. Teachers even police lunch boxes to confiscate contraband. Everything in their young lives revolves, now, around their body image and health.

When our TV screens are full of anorexic presenters, and chubby politicians admit to being bulimic, shouldn't we be trying to steer youngsters away from an obsession with healthy living, and towards living their lives?

It Won't Work

Apart from the fitness freaks, people will do what they enjoy and eat what they like. If they enjoy eating good food and can cook it, then a better diet will be the likely outcome. If boys learn to enjoy competetive sports, and are allowed to win and lose, then the will develop character and fitness. And girls should be encouraged to dance, sing, ride if they don't like school team sports. Not for the shallow health benefit and being seen to meet a policy activity target, but because it is good to develop interests beyond the National Curriculum.

Teach children cookery instead of menu planning in Food Technology lessons. Make sports days competetive, teach children how to win and lose gracefully, show them the value of delayed gratification and the value of persistance and extended effort and teamwork.

We are sacrificing all those childhood opportunities, for building resilient and confident characters, on the altar of healthy living.

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Problems Communicating With: Students

Students and I very often have different conceptions of what Sixth Form study is about.

In my mind it is about getting to grips with a subject at a conceptual level, understanding the links and implications, and learning enough facts and skills to be able to be able to demonstrate that understanding.

The bulk of my students naturally see the lessons and exams as tasks to complete with as little effort as possible. I say naturally, because that is how they have been trained for years to see their education: bite-sized chunks to reproduce in modularised exams since primary school, ideas that are so simple that a bright pupil can learn without any effort and a less bright one by rote memorisation. These students who have made it onto my Physics course have been successful in that environment, and it is often hard for them to adapt to the holistic demands of A level that are more suited to their abilities as clever sixteen-year-olds.

The Paradox of Hard Work

The biggest problem I find with students is not that, under pressure for the first time, they don't work, but that they don't make the effort to learn. I get asked by parents why their child is not getting the grade As in A level that they got at GCSE the year or two before. Their child, they tell me, is spending hours working at home to improve their performance, downloading past papers from the exam board and doing more and more exam practice.

The reason, perhaps, is that they have been spoiled. All their teachers for the previous three years were working under the Damocles Sword of national exams, the results of which are naively used to rank schools, and to judge whether teachers deserve their annual pay rise. Many (but by no means all — a topic for a future post) know that teaching the subject is the best way to produce deep learning. But everyone ends up teaching to the test, with weeks to months every year taken up with exam practice and mock exams. There are exam papers for homework and past exam questions for revision exercises and class tests.

Eat, drink and breathe the exams. Technique is everything.

So of course, in my classes, the first time a topic gets difficult, students resort to one of three actions: conscientious study; blinkers or extreme hope.

Conscientious Study

The recommended route to success. It involves a full commitment to learning what is taught and thinking about it in a structured way, supported by a revision schedule and a small amount of exam preparation work. Rarely attempted.


The second action is worrying, since this represents a large group of rather well motivated students who expect to be successful. Mathematically strong students, finding grades slipping as the course progresses, decide that what is needed, and what worked last year, is to practise answering exam questions. Again and again and again. After an initial boost to test scores, improvements stall and further efforts produce diminishing returns and the pressure to `work harder'. Problem solving skills (really, just learning a few standard techniques) are shallow and can not remove the need for deep conceptual understanding.

Extreme Hope

The most common action by far is to do nothing and hope that everything will sink in eventually. Students are discomfited by the nagging feeling that they ought to be doing something, but prefer to do something else out of class. This has ever been so with students, and there is little to be done short of compulsion. My own College is caught between an official policy, of encouraging students to be responsible for their own learning, and the need to hold teachers accountable for every student's under-performance. We tell them to take responsibility, then deny them their just deserts and their chance to learn a life lesson.

The more they fail, the harder they hope.

But we can't let them fail, can we?

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College Building Programme Halted

The LSC, the government funding body for Sixth Form Colleges, has announced that they will continue to fund just eight of the pending College building project to completion. This leaves 79 Colleges, including my own, that have previously been approved, with a further 65 advanced proposals in limbo, as almost the entire national rebuilding project is put on the back burner. The press release ends with:
We will consult urgently, and as quickly as possible, with the AoC (Association of Colleges) and other key sector organisations on proposals and a strategy for prioritisation for future projects. These proposals and the future management of the programme will also reflect the conclusion of Sir Andrew Foster’s current review.
The government's response to a funding shortfall, then, is order a second inquiry before the first one is fully over, simply to sort a possible future strategy and, I expect, to keep it all going until everyone forgets what the worry was about.

The Association of Colleges has issued a brief initial response, here, but they are unlikely to be able to influence government delays. Many of the plans involved the colleges raising millions of pounds each from bank loans and selling off land for house-building — both sources that have dried up considerably in the recession.

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