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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