Monday, March 30, 2009

British Exam regulator finally admits: Science exams are dumbed down

GCSE boards must act immediately to improve the quality of science questions in order to stretch and challenge students, the exam regulator said yesterday. It said that the qualification had been dumbed down, with too many multiple choice papers and superficial questions.

A controversial new GCSE in single science, which was intended to make the subject more relevant to teenagers, raised “significant cause for concerns” about standards, Ofqual said.

Many of the multiple choice questions were too easy because the wrong options given were “too obviously incorrect”, it said. There were also too many “short-answer questions that were fairly limited in their requirements or in the scientific content that they addressed”. The GCSE physics paper had replaced the testing of physics concepts with questions about the advantages and drawbacks of CCTV, mobile phones and the internet, it said. The regulator called for tighter marking criteria to ensure that “only answers deserving of the marks are credited”.

A separate study found a “decline in the standard of performance” in GCSE physics. Papers had got easier because fundamental principles of science were removed from the syllabus.

The reports have reignited a fierce public debate over the nature of science teaching. The new applied single GCSE in the subject, introduced in 2006, aimed to create scientifically literate citizens and ensure that all students got at least a toehold in the discipline by focusing on scientific processes. But purists complain that this approach results in the squeezing out of “proper” science, adding that efforts to make the subject seem relevant and trendy had not attracted more students to it.

Kathleen Tattersall, chairwoman of Ofqual, said: “Our monitoring shows that the revisions to the GCSE science criteria in 2005 have led to a fall in the quality of science assessments.” She added that improvements had been made to exams being set from this year and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) was reviewing the GCSE science criteria for courses starting in 2011. “Science is a vitally important subject and it is essential that these new criteria and specifications should engage and challenge all learners, particularly the most able,” she said.

For coursework completed under teacher supervision, which can represent up to a third of marks, standards were too variable, the regulator said. Exam boards should collaborate to ensure that grades were comparable.

On GCSE physics, Ofqual found a “significant reduction in content” from GCSE exams between 2002 and 2007 so that “fundamental explanations of phenomena were not tested”. It added: “Boyle’s law, the use of a capacitor as a timing device and detailed consideration of the optics of the eye and the projector were also removed. The content that was added tended to be concerned with the social implications of technological applications, rather than physics concepts.”

Candidates were required, for example, to discuss the advantages and drawbacks of CCTV, mobile phones and the internet, which “did not add to the candidates’ knowledge and understanding of physics”.

The Schools Minister, Jim Knight, said he was concerned about the findings and wanted to make sure that the most able students were stretched. He added that the Government was investing in measures to increase the numbers of both specialist science teachers and students who can study the triple individual sciences.

Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools Minister, said: “This is a terrible indictment of the Government and the QCA at a time when scientific education has never been so economically vital, and it shows why private schools are abandoning the GCSE.”

Mike Cresswell, of the AQA exams board, said he was disappointed that the regulator did not address the inevitable conflict between the need to create a scientifically literate population at the same time as training world-class scientists.

Richard Porte, of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the report confirmed the society’s findings that brighter students were no longer being stretched by the system and candidates were almost walked through the questions. “No fault lies with students or teachers. It is the system that is at fault and that system requires early, radical surgery,” he said.


AZ: State Supreme Court bans school vouchers

The Arizona Supreme Court on Wednesday declared the state's school-voucher programs unconstitutional because they violate a ban against appropriating public money for private or religious schools. The unanimous decision shuts the door on vouchers in Arizona unless voters agree to a statewide ballot measure to change the state Constitution.

Voucher programs give public-education money to parents to help them pay tuition for their children at private and religious schools. Public support for vouchers across the country is weak, and the court's ruling was not unexpected.

"Some of us just think it's wrong to tax people to pay for private or religious education," said Phoenix attorney Don Peters, who argued against the voucher program before the state Supreme Court. "The public schools are struggling enough, and these programs would take money away from public schools and route it to private schools. We think it's entirely the wrong road to be on. Vouchers could just eviscerate the public schools."

In 2006, Arizona lawmakers created two voucher programs, specifically for disabled students and students living with foster families. A coalition of advocacy groups, including local school-board members, parents and teachers, feared the law opened the door for a much larger voucher program in the future. The coalition immediately challenged the state law in Maricopa County Superior Court. The coalition lost that challenge, but in May 2008, the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed the lower-court decision and called the voucher program unconstitutional.

Andrea Weck is the mother of a 6-year-old daughter with autism and used one of Arizona's voucher programs to send her child to a small, private Tempe academy. Weck said her daughter just wasn't thriving in a public school. "The opportunity created by the scholarship program changed Lexie from the inside out," Weck said.

Vouchers are the most controversial and least successful of school-choice reforms that have swept the country during the past decade. Far more successful reforms include privately operated public schools, known as charters, which are growing rapidly, and education tax credits, which give individuals and corporations dollar-for-dollar tax breaks for donations to private-school scholarship funds. Both charters and tax credits are gaining popularity in Arizona.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have limited voucher programs still operating, mostly for disabled students or in small geographic areas. Voters in California and Utah recently turned down statewide programs. Supreme Courts in Florida and Colorado also declared larger voucher programs unconstitutional.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called the ruling "heartbreaking" and vowed to work with the Legislature to find a constitutional way to help foster parents and parents with disabled children afford private- and religious-school tuition.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said the decision hurts Arizona's reputation as a leader in the school-choice reform movement. "Nobody knows better than parents what's best for their children, and that's especially true for a child's educational needs," Horne said.

While it deliberated, the Supreme Court agreed to keep the program operating until the end of this school year, but the Legislature had already cut funding for the voucher program. In response to the court's temporary decision, legislative leaders transferred about $3.5 million from another education fund to continue to help parents pay for participating students.

In Wednesday's decision, the court allowed parents to continue to receive tuition money until the end of the current school year. Only 473 students are participating in the program this year.

Other parents, such as Jessie Geroux of Apache Junction, were watching and hoping the decision would go in favor of helping disabled kids attend private schools. Geroux has been going from district to district, looking for the right program for her son and wanted the option of choosing a private school. "(State) money that is supposed to be allocated to a child should be attached to them like a little backpack and follow them to whatever school they go to (private or public)," Geroux said.


Australia: Teachers given the cane go-ahead in some Queensland schools

THE cane is still being wielded at some Queensland schools where parents sign legal waivers to give teachers the power to hit their children. The corporal punishment option is offered at some of the state's fastest-growing independent schools as part of their strict behaviour management strategies. Religious beliefs are used to justify discipline at some schools, The Sunday Mail reports.

With more than 55,000 suspensions handed out at state schools last financial year - a jump of more than 20 per cent in two years - Independent Schools Queensland has reported growing support for private schools catering for the "disengaged and at-risk" school sector.

Bundaberg Christian College principal Mark Bensley said corporal punishment had become a drawcard for some parents because of a "lack of boundaries" at other schools. "A growing number of parents come to our school and say the school got their attention because it uses the paddle," Mr Bensley said. "If they choose to not sign it (the waiver), they are not refused enrolment. But a very significant majority of parents sign because they like that we understand the need for boundaries, fairness and consistency." Mr Bensley said the plastic paddle - shaped like a table-tennis bat - was a "last resort" when suspensions, detentions and warnings had failed.

The school, which has 600 students in Prep to Year 12, gave the paddle 10 times last year and seven times in 2007, he said. "I would never use the paddle unless we have spoken to both parents and have their blessing for it to be used," Mr Bensley said. "It is always administered in a loving way. In fact, we pray with them afterwards."

Corporal punishment was banned in state schools in 1995 by a decision of Cabinet but was not written into law. Parents, teachers or guardians are allowed to use "reasonable force" in disciplining children. The 109-year-old law was applied in a case involving a Gold Coast high school teacher last year who was acquitted on an assault charge after he admitted slapping a Year 8 student.

But State Attorney-General Cameron Dick warned that Section 208 of the law that relates to the matter was "by no means a carte blanche authority for teachers to use physical force to manage students".

Colin Krueger, principal of Mueller College at Rothwell on Brisbane's northern outskirts, said the school used the cane at the request of parents. Parents are asked to sign a consent form as part of enrolment which gives teachers the power to use "firm but fair" discipline "administered in a spirit of love according to Proverbs 13.24, 22:6 and 22:15", which promote the "rod of discipline" to "correct the foolishness raging in every child". Mr Krueger, principal of the school for 19 years, said using the cane on a child "depended on the circumstances". "If kids are persistent and we have tried every other avenue, it will be administered if parents request it. We haven't used it for a couple of years," he said. "I've had many kids come back to me and say 'Thank you for giving me the cane'."


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