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From: Daily Mail, 25 August 1994; reprinted in Bright Sparks, 2 (1): 10-12, May 1995.

Danger from too-easy exams

Brian J Ford

The number of children who pass exams is going up only because exams have been getting easier - and now I believe I can prove it. As the charts on this page demonstrate, pass rates have risen dramatically since the demise of the old O-level in 1987. But I believe last week’s GCSE results hide a failure of education. We may find that the science-based world of tomorrow has nobody qualified to run it. In that sense, today’s exams are cheating on our children.

A study of exam papers from 1894 shows how much we have lost. A century ago exam papers demanded a lot of facts:

In 1894 the pupils needed a good and practical understanding of essentials. Each answer involved depth, as well as knowledge. But the 1994 questions call for much simpler definitions. The level of understanding is now much less. You need little education to give the right answers.

In this year’s GCSE exams there is a drawing of the lungs. Inside is mucus. ‘What is the job of this mucus?’ poses the paper. Go back a century and you find a ‘lung’ question, too. ‘What is the essential nature of a breathing organ?’ it said. Here was a chance for children to express their own understanding. ‘Describe any special form of it with which you are acquainted,’ it added, cheekily.

Children a century ago were highly literate. This was clearly apparent when examiners came to set their papers. They used a level of comprehension beyond the pupil of today. We can measure this objectively. The complexity of a question depends on its length and the words involved. This can be analysed by a computer.

The result is a ‘readability index’. There are several in use, and I have put sections of examination papers through a complex program which analyses the text in several different ways. The analysis shows that today’s papers are written more simply. Modern examiners know that their candidates aren’t up to the standards of an earlier age.

Today’s exam papers are a good ten per cent simpler to read than those set before the Second World War. I have included only the high tiers of GCSE papers, meant for the most gifted of today’s school-children. There are three levels of GCSE, and the standard of the lowest ‘basic tier’ is so low it is almost off the scale.

Keeping these facts from the public could cost us our future. A hundred years ago pupils knew where on the map to place Nagasaki - at the time no more than a pretty port on the Japanese coast. Since then it has been marked in history as a victim of atomic war, destroyed in a second by nuclear power. Yet one recent exam in America showed that most modern youngsters had never even heard of it.

In the modern world, foreign powers are smuggling plutonium and terrorists are in the market for small atomic bombs to use in urban warfare. We are faced with acid rain, with global pollution, a mushrooming population, computers that are likely to go wrong, and A CONTRACTING HEALTH SERVICE.

Now more than ever we must have a new breed of scientist who understands the issues and can wrestle with the problems that face us. We need knowledgeable young people who can safeguard our future, not ill-educated children dignified by meaningless exams.

Most normal people could handle today’s simple tests. I doubt whether our modern university students could pass the school certificate set to the sixteen-year-olds of 1894!

In the following section I have found questions on similar topics from this year and from 100 years ago. The education and knowledge needed to pass the Victorian exam is far greater than the slight insight that is offered today.

Chalk - calcium carbonate

1994
‘Mary has some calcium carbonate and water in a bottle. The calcium carbonate does not dissolve in the water. How could Mary get back some water and dry calcium carbonate?’

COMMENT: How to separate chalk and water? It’s an obvious matter requiring no scientific training.

1894
‘What is an acid? Give three tests for the presence of an acid. Give equations representing the action, if any, of ... acid on caustic potash and calcium carbonate'

COMMENT: This calls for clear English, an understanding of chemistry, and a knowledge of chemical reactions.

Boats

1994

When Bill moored his yacht for the night he found it very hard to sleep because the boat was rocked by waves. Explain why Bill’s yacht always returned to the upright position after the passage of a wave.’

COMMENT: The answer is hardly one requiring scientific education.

1894

‘On a steamer which is moving with the velocity of 15 miles an hour a man crosses the deck in a direction at right angles to the steamer’s motion with a velocity of 10 feet per second. Find his resultant velocity.’

COMMENT: This requires an awareness of unit conversion and the concept of modelling movement as a parallelogram - all good science.

Plants

1994

‘The diagram shows three plants which are adapted to live in the flowing water of a stream. Mark with an arrow the direction of water movement on each of the plants ...’

COMMENT: Most children of three or four could tell you this.

1894

‘A seed is germinated, and the seedling grown in continuous darkness. Describe briefly what will occur, how the experiment will end, and why.’

COMMENT: A delightful question which tests knowledge, intelligence and the ability to write concisely.

Rainfall

1994

‘Look at the map of this part of Britain. The average rainfall at Keswick is more than double the average rainfall in Tynemouth. Suggest and explain a reason for this.’

COMMENT: The map is already provided. Only elementary knowledge is tested here, and two lines are provided for the brief answer.

1894

‘Give some account (with examples) of the geographical conditions which may give rise to (i) regions of excessive rainfall, (ii) rainless or nearly rainless districts.’

COMMENT: A broad understanding of rainfall and rain shadows is called for in this example, together with a knowledge of climatic zones and continental land-masses.

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