Biology GCSE drunken rats question

Three of my tutorial contacts talked to me today independently about the GCSE Biology exam that is going viral. I Googled “#aqa biology” and sure enough a torrent of links and Tweets popped up.

It seems that AQA included  questions in Biology GCSE biology about drunken rats, why boys drink beer and girls drink wine, including under aged drinking references, and a Business Studies question about what is an independent company.

Almost simultaneously a number of Scottish students complained that their Maths exam did not reflect the syllabus, and crucially “a common complaint was that the exam bore little or no resemblance to past papers and exemplar papers”.

What is going on? Let’s examine the issues, which raise important questions in general about the direction of exams. AQA are a terrific exam board, but have they got this one wrong?

First, this is not the same as last year’s most-tweeted GCSE Maths problem about “sweets in a bag: show that n²-n-90=0.” .  That was difficult, but on-syllabus, albeit requiring two rarely connected parts of the syllabus, probability and algebra. Not the same either as the “Scottish crocodile” question which was valid but ambiguously worded.

This year’s problems perhaps reflect a disturbing trend among exam boards. To appear to be “relevant”, “on-message”, “out of the box”, “contextual with society”, to focus on the “ethics of science” and “how science is applied” – rather than test simple scientific fact.  Also, a surely mistaken desire to be “cool with the kids”.  There is a whiff of Millenium Dome here – let’s make science exams more interesting and the kids will abandon their computer games and flock to science!

While some of these aspirations may be desirable their inclusion in vital exams is clumsy, unannounced and too dominant.  If such questions are included, it reduces room in the Hour test for basic questions about biology fundamentals. The implication is that examiners see science more as a matter of opinion, not fact.

Examiners, perhaps inadvertenly give the impression that they do not appreciate that teachers and children work very hard to learn the syllabus, practice on past papers, and despair when they open the exam paper and see a whole series of questions bearing little overt relation to the syllabus. They take the syllabus very seriously – more so than the examiners perhaps. It is like training all year to climb Ben Nevis, you reach the top exhausted, remove a prearranged stone from a cairn to claim your reward, only to find a message saying “Ha Ha, fooled you, you’ve climbed the wrong mountain!”  A teacher estimated that “only 25% of the course content” was covered in the Biology exam.

To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, known unknowns we can cope with, it’s the unknown unknowns that are the problem.

The question about “what is an independent company” was no doubt aimed at the idea of fair, not biased testing, and perhaps “controlled” and “independent variables”, but surely a better question would be, “why is an independent company used”? (for drug testing)?

biology2Some challenging examination of science experimentation and data analysis is fine – I am a data scientist and welcome the inclusion of graphs to represent data, and questions about interpretation.  Healthy living and drug testing are indeed in the Unit 1 specification. But when questions are sexist, appear to condone breaking the law, or are from another subject altogether, things have gone too far surely.

How many boxes can you tick in one question? Sexism, under-age drinking, animal testing, drug-taking, newspaper accuracy! One is tempted to ask, what were the examiners on when they wrote the question?! But seriously, didn’t the management have a quick sense check, and quietly suggest, ”I think you should have another look at this one, it is inappropriate”. Important social issues, but in a Biology exam? Better on Nicky Campbell’s excellent “The Big Question” on Sunday morning TV?

This raises questions about quality control at AQA, which along with Pearson/Edexcel and OCR is truly a great and professional organisation. (An independent company in fact, non-profit making)  I had assumed the Q stood for quality (actually it is for “qualifications” and AQA should remember that’s why pupils take the exam). One hopes this is a temporary blip. Questions like these are actually reducing standards not improving them.  If the majority of syllabus topics are no longer included in the exam, what’s the incentive to learn them?

I am detecting another general trend across exams. In their desire to become more challenging (good!) examiners are including more and more words in their questions, but not following through to ensure that the English is correct and unambiguous (bad!). An experienced tutor told me recently that sometimes a pupil often “has to guess” what the examiner wants.

Another question in the Biology exam is about Malaria. OK so far, it is in the syllabus. But the question is shrouded in “extras” – for instance needing to know Maths GCSE standard form “power of 10” notation. A core of scientific experimentation is to change and test one independent variable at a time – but here the examiners themselves are simultaneously testing biology, and beyond-basic maths.

AQA have responded and are standing by their exam, saying they do not want it to be “predictable”. I have taught and trained many pupils and adults and what I have found is this: provided they are given clear instructions with no surprises they will pursue a difficult task to completion, otherwise many become confused and disheartened. The danger for AQA is that in their efforts to make science more “interesting” and “challenging” they will discourage interest, especially as these questions were in the basic science Unit 1 paper. They seem more appropriate for advanced students

The fact that AQA felt the need to explain the question on social media at all suggests it wasn’t very clear in the first place. The fact they defended it suggests we should expect more of the same, we should “expect the unexpected”.  This will mean more teaching time is dedicated to predicting and practicing for these flowery questions, and less time for the fundamentals of biology.  Examiners may be surprised, but optimising your grade really does matter.  Appliance of science is of course important, but not at the expense of simply knowing the fundamentals?

At the risk of sounding like a “grumpy old man”, and another thing: core Unit 1 science GCSE contains no questions about electrical circuits or electrical safety but generally contains questions in Biology, Chemistry and Physics about the evils of fossil fuels,  carbon dioxide and global warming. On-message indeed!

The other issue emerging is the annual use of Twitter and other social media by pupils to vent frustrations with exams. While I am not a great fan of “trial by social media” I think this method of scrutiny is here to stay and exam boards must expect more in the future.

In summary, my beef is this. Though “application of science” is directionally right, and AQA are a fine organisation, the quality control on questions needs to be stepped up.  We need less social posturing in science exams. The syllabus content may be reasonable, but the questions do not sufficiently or overtly reflect the syllabus.  And when they do, they are shrouded in unnecessary, periphery extras, obscuring the basic facts around the subject.

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