Page last updated at 13:07 GMT, Friday, 27 March 2009

GCSE science concerns explained

Science student
The quality of the questions asked of students worries Ofqual

The new qualifications watchdog for England has made its presence known with a damning report on the standards of general science and physics GCSEs, which it says require "immediate, firm action".

Below is a summary of its main concerns, with some illustrations of the "decline" it is concerned about.


One of the main bones of contention for Ofqual is the prevalence of "objective testing" (multiple choice questions).

Chair of Ofqual, Kathleen Tattersall, says in her letter to Schools Minister Jim Knight that the high weight given to these is a cause for concern.

They can mean that students do not really have the opportunity to demonstrate the full extent of their knowledge, particularly the requisite knowledge for a grade A.

Here are some examples taken from examining bodies offering the GCSE science paper.

GCSE Science (Edexcel, 2006)

Our moon seems to disappear during an eclipse. Some people say this is because an old lady covers the moon with her cloak. She does this so that thieves cannot steal the shiny coins on the surface. Which of these would help scientists to prove or disprove this idea?

A) Collect evidence from people who believe the lady sees the thieves

B) Shout to the lady that the thieves are coming

C) Send a probe to the moon to search for coins

D) Look for fingerprints

GCSE Science (Edexcel, 2006)

Many people observe the stars using

A) A telescope B) A microscope C) An X-Ray tube D) A synthesiser

GCSE Biology (AQA 2008)

When we sweat water leaves the body through…

A) Kidneys B) Liver C) Lungs D) Skin

Higher paper in science GCSE, Edexcel

At the astronomical club Alec and Louise discuss the possibility of intelligent life existing on other planets.

Which of the following statements supports the possibility of existence of intelligent life in our galaxy?

A) The galaxy is expanding very quickly

B) The earth is over four billion years old

C) The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence has spent millions of hours analysing signals from space

D) There are so many stars in the galaxy


Essentially, GCSE science qualifications are not all the same, and not all papers within each qualification will be answered by all pupils.

For example, one paper may contain questions at foundation level, the lowest level of attainment, as well as some aimed at higher level candidates (those expected to get grades A-C).

"The specifications differ considerably across awarding bodies", Ofqual's letter to school's minister Jim Knight says, "making it difficult to judge, without statistical data, whether candidates' achievements at the same grade are comparable across awarding bodies".

Three awarding bodies are concerned - AQA, Edexcel and OCR.

Some of Ofqual's concerns regarding standards apply to all three, it says.

These are: The "complex structure" of some papers, the standards at grades A to C, high use of multiple choice questions, and unchallenging internally-assessed tasks.


Ofqual's Kathleen Tattersall said students were not being given enough opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge.

The quality of questions needs to improve, she says.

Her evaluation noted that some parts of the physics syllabus have been withdrawn from the GCSE because they are already taught at key stage 3 level (age 14), meaning some "fundamental ideas" are not tested.

Knowledge of global warming was poor
Edexcel examiner

The higher level questions are not demanding enough, Ofqual says, with a reduction in the mathematical knowledge required.

It talks of a "decline in standards of performance" between 2002 and 2007.

It says this is "partly due to more multiple-choice questions and partly to the prevalence of shorter, more highly structured questions.

An Edexcel examiner's report into the 2008 GCSE science exam includes the following comments:

Foundation level

Candidates seemed secure on some aspects of the solar system and space but over 20% of candidates thought the Sun orbited the Earth.

Lower tier

Knowledge of global warming was poor with 46% of candidates thinking that greenhouse gases damage the ozone layer and 52% believing that the "prevent global warming" website was likely to be less biased than the Royal Society of Chemistry website.

Only 58% realised that solar cells receive their energy from light energy.

Higher tier

Chemical equations continue to be a problem for many candidates.

Finally, once again, it has to be reported that the amazing percentage of 59% of higher level candidates think the current in a wire is the movement of positive electrons.

Of course, the examiner continues, there are such things as positive electrons, but they are not on the specification for science or additional science and, being antimatter, most certainly do not flow in a wire.


The modular system of exams has been criticised by Ofqual.

A revision of GCSE science meant that from 2006, qualifications became "unit-based", with the possibility to re-take units.

But again the degree to which this is possible varies between examining bodies.

The assessment methods vary too, with different weight given to modules, internal or external assessment, or multiple choice.

This concerns Ofqual, because it means there are too many ways to achieve a grade A, for example.

AQA exam board said that the modularity offered was driven by Ofqual's recommendations.

And it said it wanted "comparability" between exam bodies.

It offers an 'A' paper in science, which is a multiple choice paper, and a 'B' paper, which consists of written tests.

There are also papers in additional science and additional applied science.

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