Exams agency defends 'too hard' biology papers

Anonymous girl sitting an exam Image copyright PA
Image caption Pupils were shocked to find a high proportion of mathematical-type questions within the biology exams

Scotland's exams agency has defended this year's biology exams after pupils claimed they were too difficult.

A petition criticising the papers and calling for a lower pass mark has reached almost 5,000 signatures.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said the National 5 and Higher exams, which pupils sat on Tuesday, were "valid tests of the subject".

However, some pupils took to social media to complain they were "more like a maths test".

A petition calling on the SQA to "change the grade boundaries of the 2019 Higher Biology and Higher Human papers", complained that they "were nothing like ANY past paper and 90% of papers were made up of maths."

Human biology

One pupil wrote: "Sorry SQA but what was that paper about? It's Nat 5 Biology not Nat 5 Maths, that's Friday, give me a break."

Another said: "SQA really got me learning an entire course of human biology only to make 90% of the paper maths?"

The petition also featured the complaint: "The Nat 5 Biology paper was solid. Can't believe I said water was an enzyme."

Image copyright Ellie McBride
Image caption One of the biology questions from Tuesday's papers

'I studied so much, it was unfair'

Ellie McBride, 17, sat her Nat 5 Biology exam on Tuesday. She wants to be a midwife and needs a good pass in biology to be able to do it at Higher next year.

She said she was shocked at the content of the paper.

She told the BBC news website: "All the units, the past papers and areas the teachers recommended I study, seemed to be a waste of time.

"After the exam, our teachers said they were shocked. In past papers, there were one or two problem-solving questions, but the majority of this exam was working out problems and calculations.

"I'm worried now."

The SQA defended the papers, with a spokesman insisting they were set in accordance with course specifications.

He said: "The 2019 Higher Biology and Human Biology question papers, and the National 5 Biology question paper, were all valid tests of the subject, using content from across the course, giving candidates a fair opportunity to display and apply their knowledge and understanding of the course.

"The papers are designed to sample across the full breadth of the course, and ensure candidates have the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding."

He added: "External experts review papers to ensure the standards are consistent with previous papers and course expectations.

"More than 21,000 candidates sat National 5 Biology, while over 14,000 sat Higher Human Biology, and Higher Biology combined, and while we are aware of some discussion on social media, we would suggest this is of a relatively low volume."

Image copyright Getty Images

Glasgow biology tutor Jane Stratton said it was possible the problem may lie in the way pupils were prepared for the exam.

She said: "One problem is that science teachers are thin on the ground. And a lot of pupils are not being taught the skills.

"The main gripe is that the exam contained a lot of problem solving. They needed scientific inquiry to work out the answers.

"I think the pupils may have been short-changed, but I am not sure if that is by the exam or by the teaching they have received."

Image caption Students said the biology paper felt "like a maths exam"

The latest controversy follows a number of "social media outcries" in recent years when some candidates have alleged exams were too difficult.

In 2015, there were questions over the Higher Maths paper. Later it emerged that the pass mark had to be reduced to just 34%, which demonstrated that the paper had proved to be much harder than planned.

The SQA has quality control procedures to try and ensure exam papers are consistent from year-to-year.

Exam papers are expected to contain a full range of questions covering different aspects of the syllabus of each course.

'Taught to the test'

They are also expected to contain a range of questions of varying degrees of difficulty - some that are relatively straightforward to allow a candidate who has done the work to pass, some are harder for those who might get a B and some are harder still for those who might get an A.

Grade boundaries and the pass mark for each subject are set after the papers are marked.

It is normal for the percentage pass mark to lie anywhere between the mid 40s and mid 50s.

However, a pass mark significantly lower than 45% would imply that there was either a problem with the exam paper itself or that the paper had not met the expectation of teachers and candidates.

If the "issue" with a paper was merely that a question was not similar to one that had appeared in previous years, there would be concern that the reaction implied candidates were being "taught to the test" rather than taught the full syllabus of the subject and encouraged to use their skills and knowledge to tackle a problem.

When the pass mark and grade boundaries are published later this year it will be possible to assess whether there actually was a problem with the paper.

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