What do drunk rats, teenage boys and an independent drugs company have in common? Despite sounding like key components from a song in the 1980s they are actually items mentioned in AQA’s biology GCSE paper taken earlier this week.
Echoing youngsters across generations who walked out of exams and asked “what the heck was all that about”, the year 11s on this one did likewise – only this time they had smartphones, and Facebook.
A pupil called Jack from East Yorkshire reportedly said he didn’t “have a clue” what the questions had to do with biology and he rang the exam board to complain. “It’s stuff that we’ve never been taught, and that’s not the teachers’ fault, it’s the exam board’s fault, because they didn’t tell the teachers to teach us it.”
This trend for pupils to panic about exams post haste and in online forums, as well as calling exam boards to demand action against difficulty, has gathered pace of late and it’s a problem. First, it means young people are spending more time ruminating over answers already missed than they are revising for the next day’s exams.
I was disturbed to see the founder of online forum Student Room say that after the AQA biology exam a record number of young people took to its pages to discuss the incident. Sharing worries is fine, but there were several exams spread over the next days. Why weren’t they revising instead of hissing over things that can’t be changed?
Second, while most young people sit exams at the same time, there are some cases where time conflicts mean pupils sit tests the next day. Although kept in a controlled environment overnight, this hasn’t usually required an entire media blackout – including radio and tv – but in a world where exam questions beget media hysteria, the likelihood is that questions may eke out.
Last year’s “Hannah’s sweets” incident seems to have been the watershed moment for such behaviour. In a maths GCSE paper set by exam board Pearson, pupils were asked the following:
There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow.
Hannah takes a random sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.
Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.
The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3.
Show that n² – n – 90 = 0.
That last line seems to come from nowhere. One minute we’re imagining the joy of Hannah eating a jellied fried egg and a bon-bon, the next she’s being whacked with an alien-looking equation. Indeed, it reminds me of the time I told a pupil she must remove her feet from a chair only to have her reply that I was ugly. Our two sentences were both plausible: but it didn’t mean one followed from the other.
Online hell broke loose after the sweets incident, with people ringing Pearson to complain and pupils ranting on social media. The national media ran comments, and news articles, and radio shows hosted phone-ins. Everyone feeling the stress of exams got cathartic release and the world moved on.
Or did it? The AQA biology exam is the first of this year’s GCSE furores, but it won’t be the only paper with a difficult question and, eventually, at least one exam will have an error in it – at which point I half expect the internet to melt along with the unfortunate exam body’s phone lines.
Critics will point to these exam issues as proof our testing systems have “gone mad”. Exam boards are sloppy, the government is reforming qualifications too quickly, it’s unfair that pupils have to sit tests. Those will be the arguments.
Actually, what hard questions show is that the paper is challenging the full ability range, while errors show that humans were involved in the process and none of us is perfect.
Such sympathy is fine for you, people will say, but what about the pupils who get shafted by bad examinations?
Thing is: pupils don’t get shafted by the exams. If a question is so hard no one can answer it, or an error makes a question impossible, then grade boundaries will be moved to account for that.
Really the only damaging consequence of a cacophony over difficult exams is the stress it puts on pupils who are already worrying as they eat their breakfast, and now face amplified concerns in forums and social media.
It is fun for adults to try, and fail, to answer questions about Hannah’s sweets or the blood alcohol level of rats. For 16-year-olds these things affect their futures. We need to treat the questions with gravitas, while also reminding pupils that looking forward, rather than moaning about the past, is the best way for them to achieve.