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Royal Society of Chemistry Slams UK Exam Standards 408

Posted by kdawson
from the easy-button dept.
cheesethegreat writes "The Royal Society of Chemistry has sharply criticized the 'catastrophically' falling standards for UK school exams in the sciences. The RSC had 1,300 highly achieving students take an exam made up of questions taken from the last 50 years. The students averaged an appalling 15% on 'hard' numerical questions set in the 1960s, but managing much higher marks on the more recent 'soft' non-numerical questions. This latest report has garnered mainstream media attention. The RSC has also created a petition on the UK Prime Minister's official website, calling for urgent intervention to halt the slide, which has garnered over 3,000 signatures. The issue of declining exam standards has been an ongoing concern in the UK, with allegations that exam results have been manipulated by the government to increase pass rates and meet its own targets."
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Royal Society of Chemistry Slams UK Exam Standards

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  • by Oriumpor (446718) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:05AM (#25932009) Homepage Journal

    US Schools do the same shit

    News at 11

  • not news (Score:2, Informative)

    by wjh31 (1372867)
    its well known in the uk that exam standards have been falling year after year, exam boards make their exams slightly easier, so that the students taking that one get better grades, so more people use that board over one of their competitors, and its just a downward spiral, its ruining our education, universities are having to work harder and harder to teach students what they would have come in knowing a few years ago. The universities cant let their standards slip so it just gets harder and harder for the
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fluch (126140)

      The universities cant let their standards slip...

      Oh yes, they can, oh yes! Being a postgraduate student at one UK university and seeing how the exams are graded and later how the results are scaled and how low the level of difficulty of exam questions has become...

      Oh yes, they can lover the standards!

      • Oh yes, they can lover the standards!

        Not just in maths, it appears :)

        • by fluch (126140)

          Ups, nicely spot! What do you expect! I had just one cup of coffee this morning! ;-)

    • Re:not news (Score:5, Insightful)

      by bargainsale (1038112) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:35AM (#25932131)
      Everyone without a personal axe to grind is agreed that standards have declined - hell, university textbooks have had to be rewritten to match the lower standard of modern beginning students.

      But the truly sinister aspect of this is not so much the decline in standards as the Government's bare-faced blank denials that there is a problem at all.

      It's difficult to treat a patient who won't even admit that he's ill.
      • Re:not news (Score:4, Insightful)

        by homer_s (799572) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:34AM (#25932399)
        .....as the Government's bare-faced blank denials that there is a problem at all....It's difficult to treat a patient who won't even admit that he's ill.

        The govt. is not the patient here. The govt is what is causing this decline in standards to begin with.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by rtfa-troll (1340807)

          The govt is what is causing this decline in standards to begin with.

          or in other words, the current UK govt (and the previous Tory one) are the disease.

      • Re:not news (Score:5, Interesting)

        by edumacator (910819) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:09AM (#25932535)

        Nice Post. I couldn't agree more.

        I'm an English teacher at a good school, but even here, we are forced, not just from administration, but more diffused social pressure, to make sure our scores are good, even though we know the tests are flawed.

        The problem with education is it has become a political issue, which means we keep slathering nice pretty paint on a school building that's rotting away from the inside.

        I'm afraid the whole system will have to collapse before we begin actually fixing it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      "The universities cant let their standards slip so it just gets harder and harder for the students that actually go to university,"

      I beg to differ. Top tier schools can afford to uphold their standards, just because of the competition to get in, but what were once good middle tier schools are starting to decline. It is becoming typical for universities to set the bar to the level that their students are at, because if one university makes a stand and refuses to lower the bar, the students will simply f
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by GospelHead821 (466923)

        That is partly a function of the post-college environment too. Trade school certificates and 2-year degrees are not respected in the United States. Many jobs for which they should be sufficient demand a 4-year degree anyway. That forces many people who shouldn't need a 4-year degree to get one. The increased demand for 4-year degrees increases the price significantly.

        All of this amounts to a situation where one frequently incurs such a staggering debt to obtain one's education that it would be a very po

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jimicus (737525)

        The problem here is cultural. We, at least here in the US and apparently in the UK as well, do not have a culture that places a high value on education in its own rite.

        "Right". "Rite" in this context would be talking about rituals and magic, and I don't think we're discussing Hogwarts.

        (On a more serious note, kids can get bullied horrifically basically for being clever, so I'd say that culture is a huge problem here. I have found university and most professions that being halfway good at what you are doing will tend to earn respect, but of course that doesn't help much for the first 13 years of education).

    • Re:not news (Score:4, Interesting)

      by professionalfurryele (877225) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @12:10PM (#25933599)

      The problem here is actually a combination of factors.

      It is true that exams have gotten easier. But you cant compare a GCSE with the old O-levels and have a like for like comparison. For a start most students today take about 10 GCSEs. Some take as many as 16! Taking that many O-levels would have been insane. GCSEs have coursework with is usually a total waste of time (and take up a big chunk of time).

      They tend to teach things in such a way as to make them deliberately more difficult. Imagine trying to do diffraction when you have no idea what a function is (or a sine wave). Or study Newtons laws when you have no idea about vectors (never mind calculus). By dumbing things down they have made the subjects harder to teach for all bar the stupidest of candidates which was always the intentions. Dumbing a subject down often makes it harder! Especially for the best students.

      Then there are a whole bunch of subjects that are a complete waste of time. IT is a good example. Media studies and business studies are another pair of good examples. Incidentally I did business studies and IT so I know what a waste of time they are. The entire science curriculum is taught with virtually no maths, and no statistics.

      Modularity of the courses also wastes an immense amount of time. Studying for an exam carries significant overhead. Testing should all be done at the end, with the option to resit (so as to give people who simply have a bad day a second chance). The tests should be hard enough that it doesn't matter how many times you resit (since passing the test demonstrates that you have the necessary knowledge).

      It's no wonder that structuring a course which seems to be designed only to get the maximum number of passes (and sod the ability to tell the difference between the genius and the guy who knows just enough) would be railed against.

      In the UK at 16 students should be taking around 5 core courses. There should be no course work other than mandatory (but unmarked) labwork in the sciences. English, Maths, Science, Philosophy and Statistics. The emphasis should be on functional capabilities with mathematics, a good cultural understanding in English and good logical and inferential skills in statistics and philosophy. This is supposed to be teaching people the foundations of knowledge, not pretending that people with no knowledge of logic can make a reasoned argument, or that people with no knowledge of calculus can hope to understand Newtons laws.

      If we then want a couple of optional courses in computer science, higher physics, economics, art, history, geograph and so on, that's great. But every 16 year old should be able to construct a coherent sentence, work with derivatives, matrices, know what an ad hominem is and be able to analyse experimental data. Without these very basic skills there is absolutely nothing of value you can teach them.

      The A-levels are not (at least in their current form) hard enough (or structured sufficiently) to be teaching at 16, never mind the immense waste of time that is the modern GCSE.

      • Re:not news (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Marcus Green (34723) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @04:49PM (#25936155) Homepage

        It's common sense that if exam grades go up the exams must be getting easier and if exam grades go down the students are more stupid and/or the teachers are incompetent. And for my next trick I shal demonstrate how chalk is so much better than cheese.

        How I love common sense

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:12AM (#25932039)
    fuck all this learning must be fun horse shit, making learning fun hasn't helped anyone actually learn. maybe this recession will be a good thing, you have an entire spoilt generation out there who think they don't actually need to learn anything in order to make it through life.
  • Not sure what they mean by "Instead, they are doing the completely different, and more rigorous, International GCSEs, which are still in demand in Commonwealth countries."

    Having taught first-year engineering in one form or another for 7 years at an Australian university, I can say whatever standards are implemented in other Commonwealth nations (like ours) are failing too.

    The bright kids are as bright as ever (maybe even brighter), but the median just seems to sink lower, and lower and lower...

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by johnw (3725)

      Not sure what they mean by "Instead, they are doing the completely different, and more rigorous, International GCSEs, which are still in demand in Commonwealth countries."

      It's a reference to the IGCSEs which are still in demand from countries which use the UK to provide their exams. Presumably the education system in Australia is large enough that you don't need to buy exams in from outside.

      I have experience of only the maths IGCSE. It's much more like the old maths O-level. It's widely used in UK independent school because it's seen as being a better test of students' ability. The government won't allow it to be used in state schools for the same reason.

      The year after I

  • Not saying (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sleeponthemic (1253494) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:26AM (#25932099) Homepage
    From TFA

    Even bright students with enthusiastic teachers are being compelled to "learn to the test", answering undemanding questions to satisfy the needs of league tables and national targets

    I have to say, that aside from less quantifiable testing (ie essay based) the mentality of "study the test" is prevalent everywhere, even in higher education. I'm sure that if it were not, the pass rate would be attrocious and consequently, for many schools/institutions: "Goodbye tuition fees".

    • by Chrisje (471362)

      Reminds me of a Cake song with the line:

      You passed the test
      just like all the rest
      but never really understood
      the reasons why you took it
      in the first place
      ah yeah

    • Re:Not saying (Score:5, Interesting)

      by IainMH (176964) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:42AM (#25932717)

      With the obvious point being, if learning to pass the test isn't good enough then the test must be wrong.

      • Mod parent up! (Score:4, Informative)

        by cvd6262 (180823) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @10:17AM (#25932921)

        I would give you points if I had any.

        I can only speak for this side of the pond, since I'm not well versed in UK testing, but I specialize in educational assessment and the quality of state-sponsored standardized assessments are far below acceptable. Most schools will use expensive, well made psychometric assessments when they work with students with "special needs"; university admissions board require students to spend hundreds of dollars taking similarly high-quality exams; but when a state needs a "math" test, they contract it out to the lowest bidder and get what they pay for.

        New York State, for example, has used norm-reference testing techniques (determining the passing score base on group mean) for what is a criterion-reference achievement test (8th grade Math A). The publisher's "technical report" also reported the exam scores to be bi-dimensional (per a principal component analysis), but that the two factors together only explained 20% of the total variance! They excused this by quoting an IRT theorist out of context. (The theorist was explaining when unidimensionality was acceptable in meeting the assumptions of IRT, NOT when unidimensionality was acceptable in a general sense.)

        All this is to say that we have the know-how and the skills to create meaningful, educationally useful assessments that don't sacrifice the traditional qualities of score reliability or the validity of those scores' intended interpretations. The problem is that people in the government a) don't have those skills, b) refuse to talk with those of use who do(1), and c) are being blinding by the publishers who want to get a ROI for their test.

        (1) Yes, I've tried to bring it up.

    • Re:Not saying (Score:5, Interesting)

      by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:47AM (#25932749) Journal
      I was amazed by the speed with which my students (operating systems course) went from looking slightly confused to completely switched off once I mentioned something wouldn't be in an exam. I was going into detail of things like ZFS on the assumption that people who had opted to do a computer science degree were actually interested in the subject - apparently not. My favourite quote from the entire year though was a complaint from one of my students:

      I'm paying £3,000 a year for this degree. I don't expect to be told to read stuff in a book!

  • by bhunachchicken (834243) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:33AM (#25932119) Homepage

    ... in the UK is that young people now care more about who is going to win X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent than own performance at school.

    And when you can just show up for an audition to a TV program, do a little dance and become rich and famous overnight, why on earth would you want an education?

    • by Sockatume (732728) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:26AM (#25932365)
      BS. There's still plenty of kids out there who want to be good scientists, or engineers, or whatever. What's scary about this news is that they can achieve the best possible grades and be left with a half-assed education. The system's not just making it easier for students, it's failing them.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Eh, whatever. I did GCSEs, then A-Levels about 6-8 years ago. Then I did a CS degree. Now I have a great job, earn great money way ahead of my old school friends, and can confidently say that almost everything except the GCSEs was a complete waste of time. GCSEs were about right for that age (14-16): study 10 or 11 subjects over a period of two years, so not in a whole lot of depth, but you do get a lot of breadth.

      By the time I was 16 I knew I wanted to write software for a living, so did A-Level maths, phy

    • by mickwd (196449) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:47AM (#25932745)

      It's more than just that.

      The whole concept of working hard to earn a good income and have a good quality of life seems to be disappearing.

      You also have the national lottery. Sod this idea of building a career, let's just do the national lottery once a week and hope we get lucky. Never have to work again.....

      The other huge problem has been the City of London, and the vast salaries and bonuses paid to people in the financial sectors, even very young people.

      Seeing people earn that kind of money, however hard they work (and I'm sure many do work very hard), breaks any sort of link between what you *earn* being linked to how hard you work. Why work hard, just get a "job in the city"? Why work that bit harder, put in lots of extra hours, etc, etc, for an extra thousand pounds or two, when people in their twenties in the city are getting million-pound bonuses ? I'm sure many are thinking "why should I bother"? Indeed, why should they bother, when they don't need to earn the money, just borrow it?

      This whole credit crunch has been brought about by people borrowing (and being lent) too much money, rather than being made to earn it first. A large part of the recession we are now facing will be reality hitting home, and people finally getting round to repaying some of what they have borrowed, rather than continuing to spend, spend, spend.

      I hope at least one positive outcome will be the end of the worship the City of London, the cutting back of their ridiculous salaries, fewer of our brightest young people being sucked into a career of playing games with money instead of doing something more productive for society as a whole, and a re-appreciation of the idea of the rewards you receive being more proportionate to the effort you put in.

      Starting in school.

  • Sick of this... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Manip (656104) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:42AM (#25932163)

    I'm sick of this "Kids in the 1950s were smarter than today" rubbish. I know that these old accidemics studied back then and want to feel smart but making kids feel dumb today is wrong and they should feel ashamaned.

    Let me break it down for them and you:
    - Kids in the 1950s did not study what we study today
    - Kids today did not study what kids studied back in the 1950s

    I know this is a shocking revolation but still true. If possible I would love to see what would happen if you sat a 1950s kid down in front of a 2008 exam, my guess is the results would be similar.

    The only school subject which might be the same between the 1950s and today is Maths. But even then there is less focus on doing long calculations on the page and more using a calculator.

    You can claim that doing them on the calculator is dumbing people down but I think voluntarily spending five minutes and likely introducing errors already makes you fairly dumb given an alternative.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Israfels (730298)

      - Kids in the 1950s did not study what we study today
      - Kids today did not study what kids studied back in the 1950s

      Given that chemistry was being taught in the 1950's as well as in the present, you assertion that they're taught differently is wrong. Other than newer discoveries at the sub-atomic level, there not a lot of new things you'll be teaching someone at the college level that's different than what a 1950's student would have learned.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by JohnFluxx (413620)

        That's not the point. The point is that these days the focus is on understanding the concepts of chemistry (for example) compared to 50 years ago when the focus was on doing the math.

        • by martin-boundary (547041) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:24AM (#25932359)
          That's not the point. Nobody cares if you "understand" the concepts but cannot apply them to a problem. Many people would say that if you cannot apply the concepts in a problem, then you haven't "understood" them in the first place.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Manip (656104)

        If you actually look at the Chemistry curriculum from then and now you might see just how very wrong you are.

        All subjects except Maths evolve. Even staple subjects like History and English. Even if some of the basics remain similar you'll find that they're tort in a way that makes them more applicable in today's society and world.

        The real question/issue we should be asking/addressing is - How good are degree students in the workplace?

        Now that is a problem we should our time looking into. Because from my poi

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Ragzouken (943900)
        Given that it's not feasible to teach 100% of all chemistry to students in the 1950 or modern day, and that two subsets of that knowledge are not guaranteed to have 100% overlap, your assertion that they couldn't have been tought differently is wrong.
    • by Aereus (1042228)

      Yes, it's not like they taught such new-fangled subjects as MATH or HISTORY back then...

      The way in which we teach is drastically different today, but the core subjects are not.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Garse Janacek (554329)

        Yes, it's not like they taught such new-fangled subjects as MATH or HISTORY back then... The way in which we teach is drastically different today, but the core subjects are not.

        Just "HISTORY"? It must have been a survey course....

        Seriously, what do you imagine is the "core subject" of "history" such that two people who studied "history" 60 years apart should perform similarly on identical exams? My wife is a PhD student in history, but would probably have trouble answering simple questions about people

    • by martin-boundary (547041) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:21AM (#25932337)
      Wishing it weren't true doesn't change the fact, though.

      Let me break it down for them and you:
      - Kids in the 1950s did not study what we study today
      - Kids today did not study what kids studied back in the 1950s

      I don't know what subjects you studied, but it couldn't have been science. I don't have much experience with humanities and postmodernism, so I'm willing to believe that English majors today might not study the same topics as English majors in 1950, and so on.

      But one of the defining characteristics of science is that it builds on its own past, and it's quite certain that kids today study substantially the same science topics as they did in the 1950s, at least they are supposed to. On top of that, there will be newer topics of course, but those should be a tiny fraction (10% at most - science hasn't changed that much in 50 years).

      Any kid who's been studying chemistry or physics or mathematics or engineering today should be able to pick up a textbook from the 1950s and recognize nearly everything in it. If they don't, then they're sorely lacking in the basics. And if they can't do the exercises in one of those books, then they need to start spending time in the library.

      • Maths education (Score:3, Informative)

        by pjt33 (739471)

        Stuff gets shuffled. Back in the 50s there was a lot more focus on geometry: I did as much maths as was possible at school (2 A-levels and an AS) and I'm sure I didn't cover nearly as much geometry as my mother. In fact, I doubt I covered 10% of Euclid. On the other hand, she was surprised that group theory had moved into the A-level syllabus - she didn't encounter it before university - and the two "discrete mathematics" modules I took covered topics such as graph theory which were research material in the

    • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:27AM (#25932373)
      and your comment is nonsense. The reasons behind the changes are quite simple.

      I went to a selective school - called a "grammar school" - which took the top 20% of the population based on a mixed IQ/attainment test. I was then in the top set for maths and the three sciences - so that's the top 5%. In the last two years at school I was in special groups that were applying to Cambridge (our school was heavily science biased to did not have Oxford applicants, who had to do Latin)- the top 1% in maths and physics. If you failed the Cambridge Entrance there was always Durham, Imperial or University College London, or Sussex.

      There is your explanation. The exams in the 60s were aimed at - let's call it an elite. In those days there were few distractions - hardly anything on television, no mobile phones, electronic gadgets were basically for nerds who were already into electronics, music was about playing instruments or listening to a few very expensive recordings, not the iPod generation, theatre was about the school theatre group or the local AmDram society if you were good enough. To be absolutely honest, if you were a nerd, and there were enough of us, school was actually the most interesting place to be, where really intelligent adults spent quite a lot of spare time encouraging those of us who were interested in their subjects.

      Nowadays schools are expected to spread their teaching assets over the entire pupil list, and the children have far more things to think about outside school. Exams are taken by most children, not just around 15% in each subject. Of course the emphasis has changed.

      But if you are one of the top few percent, you can still get the education you want. Despite going through the state system, my children and their friends still go to Oxbridge and the top tier universities, and they still emerge just as well educated as our generation ever did.

      I don't think the problem is anything at all to do with exams. It is that society nowadays needs a higher percentage of technically educated people, but the media give the impression that the best opportunities for the bright are in banking, finance, law and celebrity culture. Most journalists are technically illiterate, and the rest follows.

      As for maths, you are simply wrong through ignorance. My generation used calculators. They just were not electronic. We had Brunswiga mechanical calculators, mathematical tables (which are basically a hand operated calculator system) and slide rules. The knowledge of how to use them is obsolete, but the principle of assisted calculation is the same.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by gardyloo (512791)

        I went to a selective school - called a "grammar school" - which took the top 20% of the population based on a mixed IQ/attainment test. I was then in the top set for maths and the three sciences - so that's the top 5%.

        Waiiiiiittt -- What're those funny circle-line-circle symbols after the numbers?

    • by thermian (1267986) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:43AM (#25932437)

      I must agree.
      I went to school in the UK in the 70s. Being what is now recognized as Dyslexic I had a rough time, being considered 'thick' and not worth teaching. Since I now have a Ph.d in Computer Science, I often find myself wondering at this assessment, and how many peoples lives such labels all but destroyed. For me it was a hard road up the education ladder, but I got there in the end.

      I didn't notice anything much better back then myself. Seems to me, given how many people I knew from that time still work in local factories, and got pretty much nothing of benefit from their 'harder' exams (I wasn't allowed to take them, so I can't comment) I don't see how things have changed that much.

      My boy is also dyslexic, gets extra help as a result, and in spite of some issues with the low standard of education which even he realises is a problem, he's doing OK (far better then I did), and will be going to university to do a science subject himself.

      I personally think people need to be looking to their own parenting, and how they encourage their child to learn, and not expecting the government to sort it out for them. Behavior is so bad in UK schools at the moment that I'm amazed the kids learn anything at all. This is almost entirely a parental issue.

      • Behavior is so bad in UK schools at the moment that I'm amazed the kids learn anything at all.

        One of my children currently heads the maths department in a London comprehensive school in a deprived borough, and would not agree. However, your comment about the generally low level of educational attainment in the 70s (which was indeed a dire time in British education) is one I agree with. I spent part of the 70s teaching maths in an independent school, and parents and grandparents would practically bankrupt th

    • by Stormx2 (1003260) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:02AM (#25932511)
      This is exactly right. My maths teacher, who has been teaching maths for many many years, himself says that the tests haven't got easier or the students dumber. Nay, it's just the fact that the curriculum is different now. It adapts.

      For example, when he was at school, he was routinely using logarithms at age 11/12 just because it was the simplest way to do operations involving large numbers. We didn't start that til I was 16, but we learnt about other areas of maths a bit more. Geometric, series, etc.

      Everyone bangs on about how hard old exams used to be. It's simply not true, the students were just learning different things back then.

      I attend a state school, and I consider myself quite gifted. I've had a good education all my life and I've always been creative/interested in all things science/maths. And honestly, after all the work that's gone in, I refuse to believe that I'd be in a majority if I'd lived 50 years ago. It just doesn't make sense; my parents' education's standards just weren't different.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Translations for the old farts out there:

      Accidemic - an accidental epidemic
      Ashamaned - cursed into submission by a shaman
      Revolation - volatile relations

      Hope that helps...

    • I think your post just proves the point in case. Do you know what kids studied in the 50s that they don't today? How about basic spelling and grammar?

      accidemics = academics
      ashamaned = ashamed
      revolation = revelation

      Why exactly should "accidemics" feel "ashamaned" for making kids feel dumb if they are dumb? Enough of this "Oh, don't hurt their feelings" crap. If they're wrong, they're wrong. If they failed, they failed. If you don't tell them, then their going to fail continuously.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BarefootClown (267581)

      I'm sick of this "Kids in the 1950s were smarter than today" rubbish. I know that these old accidemics studied back then and want to feel smart but making kids feel dumb today is wrong and they should feel ashamaned.

      Let me break it down for them and you:
      - Kids in the 1950s did not study what we study today
      - Kids today did not study what kids studied back in the 1950s

      I know this is a shocking revolation but still true. If possible I would love to see what would happen if you sat a 1950s kid down in front of a 2008 exam, my guess is the results would be similar.

      The only school subject which might be the same between the 1950s and today is Maths. But even then there is less focus on doing long calculations on the page and more using a calculator.

      You can claim that doing them on the calculator is dumbing people down but I think voluntarily spending five minutes and likely introducing errors already makes you fairly dumb given an alternative.

      "Kids today did not study what kids studied back in the 1950s"
      Correct. Many of them studied spelling.

  • by jimicus (737525) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:43AM (#25932169)

    First, let's get one thing straight.

    This is not an argument anyone in a position of power can possibly win. More students fail? Your teaching standards are falling, your education system is lousy. More students pass? Your exams are too easy.

    So instead, let's look at what organisations which aren't obliged to follow the state-designed education system think.

    Several universities are introducing entrance exams, whereas previously this was more-or-less exclusive to Oxford and Cambridge.

    Several universities are having to introduce more basic maths into their first year syllabus to get students up to speed.

    Private schools are seriously considering dropping the state-set exams (GCSEs and A-levels) in favour of something else such as the International Baccalaureate. I myself have looked at papers which were set only 5 or 6 years after I left school and exams which I should by rights have been completely lost on - I could immediately see how to answer at least half the questions.

    On the other hand, a lot of countries in north Africa and the Middle East consider that education is the only way they're going to improve their lot in the long term. Tunisia, for example, spends a third of its money on education and children leave school speaking at least three languages reasonably fluently. Many of the Arab emirates are doing something similar - they know the oil's not going to be there forever, and they want to be prepared for the day the wells dry up. No chance they can do that if most of their population can hardly read.

    As for China - if you think you can move all your manufacturing out there and the locals won't one day say to themselves "Hang on a minute. We own all the factories, we know exactly how to build the kind of things that they buy in the West - why don't we design them ourselves and keep all the money?" you're living on another planet.

    20 years from now, the West isn't going to be the technical research place it is today.

    • Several universities are introducing entrance exams, whereas previously this was more-or-less exclusive to Oxford and Cambridge.

      Yeah but that doesn't tell us anything objective about students skills. Universities, especially in the UK, run on a heirarchical system in which they are all stack-ranked against each other. Let's imagine for the sake of argument that actually, students have been getting objectively better at the subjects every year due to better teaching, better materials and so on. The result wo

    • by igb (28052)
      A couple of years ago the AQA took out adverts in broadsheet papers whose basic thrust was ``Celebrate our children's success: look how hard the exams are''. My wife and I did our A levels in the early eighties: science for me, arts for her. Which meant we had between us 1981 O Level grade As and 1983 A or B grade A Levels in every subject that had sample questions shown, plus a smattering oa OA, AO, S, degrees, etc. Yes, we agreed after looking at the questions, GCSEs are about the same standard as O L
  • Practice (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Timmmm (636430) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:45AM (#25932175)

    When that comparison between easy English and hard Chinese exams was in the news I asked a Chinese guy about it. He said that although the questions are harder, they vary very little across years so the students all just practice the question forms a lot beforehand, and regurgitate the method with minor changes during the exam.

    Still, I'm sure exams have got easier over the years. It would be interesting to see if this has happened to university exams - Oxford and Cambridge must have records going back hundreds of years...

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      yes, the Cambridge exams have become harder over the years! I have looked at the first ever Maths exam in our library records and the questions were basically, if you have a room x by y by z, how many tiles would you need to tile it. The fact that calculus didn't even exist when the first exam was set probably suggests something.

    • just, to clarify, 800 years to be precise...

      • by Timmmm (636430)

        Yeah but they won't have exams records dating back to their founding!

        And now that I think about it, lots of the maths (e.g. vector calculus) was invented quite recently so it might be tricky to compare.

  • by dada21 (163177) <adam.dada@gmail.com> on Sunday November 30, 2008 @07:47AM (#25932179) Homepage Journal

    Your friendly neighborhood anarcho-capitalist chiming in again.

    I understand that people think that education is a right. I don't see it that way, but it's where we are today. If people want to socialize education, so be it. My problem is in the grading system.

    If you were allowed to grade the work you do at the office, what would you give yourself? This is the problem with teachers also being graders. When you socialize learning, you never want to strive for the perfect straight A class, or the complete disaster total failure class. Ending up with a C average means you can moan for more money and staff and administration next year.

    I would accept socialize teaching if we had completely private and competitive grading systems. Think of the ACT and the SAT, but on a per-class basis. Let teachers know what is required for each tier in terms of learning, and then let the teachers hammer that home.

    With private, competitive grading systems, different future work industries might look for different scores or even different grading systems. The student can pay for the ones they need, and take those tests. The educators can focus on "educating," and the cost of grading isn't passed on to the taxpayer. Some students may just want a "Social Equivalency" exam, and most private graders would offer similar ones. Other higher level students might need specific exams, to get an interview, for example.

    When you socialize learning AND grading, of course you're going to eventually dumb down the system. That's how these things work.

    • You are a complete idiot.

      The problem in the uk today (as described in TFA) is that we have separate teachers and graders. There is a free market for exam boards.

      The result is that market forces cause the exam boards to set easier and easier exams. So your proposed "solution" is in fact, the very problem being discussed.

      I would normally tell somebody as stupid as you to quit stealing oxygen at this point, but you wouldn't do something as "socialist" as that, would you? So how about you go and practice your "

    • by Vexorian (959249)

      I understand that people think that education is a right. I don't see it that way, but it's where we are today. If people want to socialize education, so be it.

      Wow dude... So, making education a right is socializing education? How about you fuck off? Really... Oh my God, perhaps YOU are the product of the British school system, that would explain it all.

    • by Chrisje (471362)

      I think that the credit crisis as sparked by the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco has amply illustrated what happens when you actually trust "The Market" and let it fly without regulating it. If you do not put up rules, people will tend to get screwed to a much larger degree. So you can stick your anarcho-capitalism where the sun don't shine as far as I'm concerned.

      The fact that you say education is not a right is somewhat revolting for me, and that's for purely selfish reasons, as a matter of fact. Let's say I

    • by Teun (17872)
      From the way you spell I think I can conclude you are from North America.

      Over here in Europe we see education as a corner stone of society and as such it is by many, if not most, seen as a right.
      A more recent problem is that less people understand such rights given by society also form a duty to society.

      The politicians we elect to take care of the shop know they have to answer questions every election and to make the results appear good they are no doubt tempted to lower standards to make results look g

  • GCSE is certainly of low standards. It's not just chemistry, either: the new science scheme is shit all across the board. An example: in a physics exam, instead of 'Calculate the speed of this', you get three multiple choices, one of which must be ringed (one will be D/T, another T/D, and the other DT). From TFA:

    "[...] teachers are being compelled to 'teach to the test' [...which] draws mainly on the recalling of facts, with no reference to logic or mathematics."

    It's referred to as 'Exam Technique' and

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jo_ham (604554)

      I spotted this years ago when I sat my A levels and GCSEs (back before you need UCAS points and actually needed "this number of As, this number of Bs etc).

      I have a GCSE textbook from back when GCSEs were new - some of the questions in it relate to maths that is now not taught until A level. I have an O-level maths textbook too - it could substitute quite easily for a current A level textbook in some areas.

      There's no doubt that the exams are getting easier, and perhaps calculus has no need to be on the GCSE

      • Consider that the number of subjects being studied has gone up over time, but the students still only get 2 years for all of them. So I'd expect the subjects to be studied in less depth, that's inevitable if you increase the breadth.

    • by shic (309152)

      It's been a while since I was doing school exams, but I was aware even then (late 80s/early 90s) that the subjects I was learning were significantly less complex than the same subjects one or two decades earlier.

      I think it is important to note, however, that this doesn't make the exams easier. By this, I mean, it is not better to sit less complex examinations. Where examinations are "easy" it rewards disproportionately those who can regurgitate quickly and accurately over those who comprehend. I think th

  • ...at least for the growing number of UK 'universities' offering Homeopathy etc. BSc courses. Not an easy sell to students equipped with a basic knowledge of chemistry.

    http://dcscience.net/?p=454 [dcscience.net]
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=403123&c=1 [timeshighe...tion.co.uk]
    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=26&storycode=404104&c=2 [timeshighe...tion.co.uk]
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/Pharmacology/dc-bits/dcpubs.html#fun1 [ucl.ac.uk] [DC's Nature article, "Science degrees without the science" available here]

    M

  • ... never has been, never will be. Who elected the Queen anyway? Strange women in ponds hurling scimitars in a farcical aquatic ceremony?

    Good grades on your A levels? Who cares.

    On the other hand, do you really want a "nation of chemistry students," to misquote Napoleon?

    A Chem-Nerd-ocracy?

    May God have mercy on us all.

  • nothing new (Score:4, Funny)

    by smoker2 (750216) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @08:40AM (#25932427) Homepage Journal
    Repost of an old theme :

    The following examples may help to clarify the difference between the new and old math.

    1960: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of this price. What is his profit?

    1970 (Traditional math): A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. What is his profit?

    1975 (New Math): A logger exchanges a set L of lumber for a set M of money. The cardinality of set M is 100 and each element is worth $1.

    (a) make 100 dots representing the elements of the set M

    (b) The set C representing costs of production contains 20 fewer points than set M. Represent the set C as a subset of the set M.

    (c) What is the cardinality of the set P of profits?

    1990 (Dumbed-down math): A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Underline the number 20.

    1997 (Whole Math): By cutting down a forest full of beautiful trees, a logger makes $20.

    (a) What do you think of this way of making money?

    (b) How did the forest birds and squirrels feel?

    (c) Draw a picture of the forest as you'd like it to look.

    I left school the year before they merged GCE (General Certificate of Education) and CSE (Certificate of Secondary Education) into GCSE.
    The CSE syllabus was taught to those who were less academically capable (as evidenced by their past results). In my opinion, GCE taught how to calculate an answer, whereas CSE taught how to recognise an answer from a group of candidates. But that wasn't "fair" so everybody had to learn at the lowest common level.

    That is the problem.
    I do have experience of both types as although I did GCEs at school, I also went to college to learn car mechanics where I had to take basic English (Communication Skills) and Maths (Numeracy) as part of the course. Having already got GCEs in both, I pissed the college courses with distinctions. The top grade in CSE was only ever a C in GCE. The laughable thing from this recent article is that you can pass with around a 20% score.

    • by Teun (17872)
      I had never seen your 'old theme', thanks for the repost because I thinks it explains the subject nicely.
  • As I see it, the problem isn't that examination standards are falling, but that they encourage the education system to "teach to pass tests" not "teach to learn the the students critical thinking.
    From the article: "Science examination standards at UK schools have eroded so severely that the testing of problem-solving, critical thinking and the application of mathematics has almost disappeared."
    If it was only the examinations that had become easier, then the problem wouldn't have been so serious. The problem

  • by Crookdotter (1297179) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:21AM (#25932599)
    So this is a unique opportunity to talk on /. and actually know what I'm on about.

    I agree, the science exams we work towards these days are a pitiful shadow of what was taught in the past, and the slide is continuing.

    Have a look yourself if you're interested:

    http://www.ocr.org.uk/qualifications/gcse/index.html [ocr.org.uk]

    This is our exam board at the moment. There are past papers and mark schemes etc so you can see what the kids get put up against.

    Calculations have gone out of the window it seems, moved up to A-levels. That's why there is a massive drop off in A-levels - kids think that it's the same but as soon as they get a bit of real science to do, it's too hard.

    We're all supposed to make science relevant etc. The courses are a joke and the science is a joke, filled with 'science for everyone'. The science of mobile phones to teach microwaves (plus discussion on phones causing brain tumours). Cooking potato as a first lesson in organic chemistry to check on texture and colour. I kid you not. Everything is a discussion and an opinion, with little right or wrong answers. They are expected to debate whether we should build nuclear power stations or not without (I'm not exaggerating here) useful knowledge of nuclear power, decent atomic structure, other forms of generation, pollution concerns, resource management or how electricity works. It's far too touchy feely with far too little rigorous intellectual content.
  • Not so simple... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PeterAitch (920670) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @09:33AM (#25932669)

    I work in a UK school, having moved some years ago out of my research discipline. My school is not private but it is not the standard product either, being girls-only and basically running its own affairs. We get mainly higher-end kids but still have a "tail" ability-wise. In addition to science for younger pupils, I have always specialised in physics (not exactly an easy sell to girls). So, here are my thoughts...

    The RSC are broadly correct with their analysis. It's a question of breadth versus depth. Certainly many pupils are now putting in far more hours than in my day, but then they are usually taking a wider variety of subjects, with some distinctly eclectic choices. They are also heavily involved with external activities, often with an eye on the CV in order to compete effectively for the "best" courses and/or universities. Staff support them as much as possible in all this, in my school often working 80+ hours per week during term (I'm taking a break to write this!) So, more effort is going in for and by some pupils - but to what effect?

    The GCSE science courses are very poorly thought out - with a random jumble of disconnected facts ranging from the trivial to the arcane being presented together on the same textbook page. Children of 14 who are only dimly aware of what an electron is (in VERY simple terms) suddenly meet HOLES in connection with p-n junctions at the start of their GCSE course. Oh, and allow about 15 minutes to get the idea of a p-n junction across - then move on! Similar lunacies occur elsewhere in the specification, but you get the idea. So make science sexy and "relevant" by dumping the structure and rigour. To paraphrase an old physics joke, teach them about real horses before they know anything about spherical horses.

    The advanced courses are better, but here the mathematics has been almost entirely removed, which is a clear advantage for those who are not going to take the subject at university but a massive disservice to those who are. It's not all bad, since it forces pupils to focus on principles (Feynman-style) but it can easily give a totally wrong impression of what science is really like. Most of my pupils do maths (and often further maths) anyway, so it's not a major problem for me.

    Teaching to the test? No, sorry, I believe in pupils being encouraged to develop their critical thinking skills, where this is reasonable. Thinking rigorously is a major life-skill, unlike the test which will be history once it has been taken. The immediate consequence is that the subject is perceived by some as "almost impossible" but, ironically, those brave enough to still take it and committed enough to work at it come to love it! Since this is a public forum, I'm not going to comment explicitly on the predictable conseqences this can have with management - you're all bright enough to do that yourselves. Suffice it to say that I have yet to be promoted.

    So, are we developing a generation of box-ticking, multi-tasking, shallow-thinking children who cannot do things for themselves? In general, yes - although the VERY best are still as good as ever: and as rare.

  • by daremonai (859175) on Sunday November 30, 2008 @11:09AM (#25933245)

    ... and I didn't really see that great a range in difficulty. They were all fairly straightforward, which is of course what you'd expect in a high school chemistry exam. The main differences I could see were that the more recent questions had a greater percentage of descriptive (non-numeric) questions. It was actually the questions from 1975 which had the greatest percentage of multiple-choice answers.

    I suspect a lot of the difference in the students' results is from teaching to the test - they did well on the 2005 questions, because those are (in terms of phrasing and presentation) the ones they were taught to answer.

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