Slippery Slopes and Awkward Questions

This is the second of what will no doubt be a fair few blog posts on education this summer. Having already looked at the pressure on students, I’d like to consider an issue that has been in the news quite a lot recently: the so-called ‘impossible questions’ in public exams. I am not here referring to questions such as those on the AQA A-Level Physics Unit 4 concerning two resistors, where the figures were misprinted, but questions which have sent students into an uproar.

The first is the now infamous ‘sweets question.’ This GCSE maths question tested sampling without replacement and the simple manipulation of algebraic fractions in the context of a bag of ‘n’ sweets, of which 6 were orange and the remainder yellow. It was given that the probability of withdrawing two orange sweets in succession was 1/3. The first part of the question asked candidates to show that n^2-n-90=0. A number of students ‘reported’ through social media that they had been unable to show the quadratic given. and that they had also had issues in completing other questions in the paper. A petition has even been set up on Change.org asking for either lower grade boundaries, or even the opportunity to retake the exam paper. The examination board themselves have said that the question was aimed at students aiming for A* or A grades.

Here, I feel that the idea of fixation on grades and potentially terrible consequences if even a mark is lost are exemplified. By petitioning an examination board to lower grade boundaries or to allow candidates to retake a paper, students are acting as if they have a right to the top examination grades; some of those who sat this paper may feel as if they have been cheated out of the grade that they ‘should’ get. This irritates me a lot. I firmly believe that everyone should have the right to education, and the opportunity to succeed, just like most people. Yet this is a step too far. I have attempted to check whether the topics of sampling without replacement and manipulating algebraic fractions are on the specification, but this has been impeded by not knowing enough about the actual paper. I would hope that they are, otherwise the exam board will have made a grave error, and my vehemence will have been severely misplaced.

This begs the question: what is the purpose of public examinations? Every country needs measures of assessing the strengths of its education system. There has been debate over whether examinations are necessarily the best way of assessing students (more of that in another post), but for now, they have been deemed the best. This is, in my opinion, because they allow all students to be compared on one scale which in theory should give disadvantaged students an equal opportunity for success as privileged ones. Therefore, it becomes necessary to produce examinations that differentiate clearly between higher and lower-achieving students. Our contentious maths paper is but another example of this: there have to be some harder questions on exam papers to weed out the candidates who are worthy of the top grades. It appears to me, that in complaining about harder questions, students are failing to accept the idea of failure (no pun intended).

For whatever reason, there is suddenly a perception that exams should be easy, following a repetitive pattern in terms of the difficulty and style of the questions, and that every student should get full marks on every question. And all this in an education system that is so lauded worldwide? I’d like to provide a second example which illustrates the second of these novel perceptions. It comes directly from another petition relating to public examinations on Change.org, which petitions another exam board to lower grade boundaries, and I shall almost quote it verbatim here (replete with all its grammatical errors): ‘Students prospects of university will be greatly affected, if the correct action does not take place. This can lead to higher unemployment rates and the future of the generation suffering. By signing this petition you can make a difference, A-Level Exams Published by [examination board] this summer did not follow the usual pattern, and as a result have thrown many students off guard, a lot of the questions also did not test knowledge of the subject but tested how a question can be interpreted. This goes against [examination board]’s motto of realising potential if students are discouraged.’

I have problems with this. Many problems. The first is the phrase ‘correct action’: this goes back to my earlier point about students feeling as if they have an automatic right to a higher grade, which has never been and should really never be the case. The next sentence is a slippery slope that even the Winter Olympics would be proud of; one cohort of students does not make up a generation, and the failure of some students to secure certain grades will not directly lead to higher unemployment rates. Whilst it may make it harder for some students to secure top jobs in the future, a C grade instead of a B grade isn’t going to send the unemployment rate spiralling upwards. Thirdly, examinations ‘did not follow the usual pattern’. Why should it be the case that they follow a set pattern? Surely that defeats the purpose of public examinations to challenge students and differentiate between those who achieve highly and those who don’t? Dealing with unexpected situations is something that goes well beyond mere exams into the wider sphere of human life, and is in my opinion, an essential skill. The questions in these contentious exams ‘did not test knowledge of the subject but tested how a question can be interpreted’. Excuse my flippancy, but are you a parrot, to simply regurgitate what you have been taught? I apologise to any parrots reading this post, but the human readers must realise that education is more than simply rote memorisation (see The Need for a Rounded Education, my first ever post). A hallmark of the education system in the UK is that it does not rely on rote memorisation of content from a textbook, as is the case in many countries around the world. Some element of lateral thinking is required. It worries me that the climate of grade inflation has left students learning mark schemes and the specific format of past papers in order to achieve the top grades, rather than just learning the subject material.

Like many of you, I am no stranger to a particularly difficult exam, and I really do sympathise with those worrying about whether they have secured university places or not as a result of a difficult paper. This, however, is not the way to react. The examination boards do understand when one year’s paper is slightly more difficult than the other, and will adjust the grade boundaries accordingly, regardless of whether they are petitioned to do so. After the exam is over, you have no control over the result; you must recognise that things are no longer in your hands and behave accordingly. The thing that concerns me most in all of this is the attitude that the UK education system is creating. Something needs to change.

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