The Exam Chestnut

You know what I mean, we hear the same refrain every year when the GCSE, AS and A2 results come out. On the one side detractors say that exams must be getting too easy and on the other the Government and the Education Establishment say that the latest results are evidence of ever increasing standards. Who, if anyone, is right?

I am old enough to have done O-levels and CSEs but young enough to have had my Os graded A to E with A to C being the equivalent of a pass under the previous system. That is why such store is set by the number of A* to C passes today. Nationally, about 60% of students obtain 5 or more A* to C grades. I infer from this that in any particular subject the student of average ability in that subject should get a grade C. According tho the notes on the back of my old CSE certificates, the average ability student would achieve a Grade 4, and Grade 1 was the equivalent of an O-level pass. This rather suggests that the average ability GCSE student should score three grades down from a C, ie a Grade F. If the exams are as difficult as they were thirty years ago, then this represents a huge improvement in standards.

I am not in a position to comment on most subjects so I will stick to my own specialism: physics.

From the AQA Physics Energy Module exam sat on 8 March 2006, we have:-


There are different heat transfer processes.

Match words from the list with the numbers 1-4 in the sentences.





Heat is transferred through the water in a pan by …1

Pans often have lids. Lids reduce heat loss due to …2

Heat is transferred through copper by …3

Spaceships lose heat by …4

Thus might seem a bit of a cheap shot at the exam since it is taken from Section A of the Foundation Tier. So how about this, from Section C of the Higher Tier:


A power station generates electricity by making use of the rise and fall of sea level

6.1    This power station will use . . .

a tidal barrage

the Sun’s radiation

uranium or plutonium

wind energy

6.2    The useful energy transfers in this power station  are . . .

gravitational potential -> kinetic -> electrical

B  heat -> kinetic -> electrical

kinetic -> gravitational potential -> electrical

D  kinetic -> heat -> electrical

6.3    This type of power station usually . . .

A  destroys the habitat of wading birds

B  needs a dam built across an upland river valley

needs to be built on a hill

produces dangerous waste

6.4    What is the energy output of a 4 megawatt power station?

4 million joules per second

4 million newtons per second

C  4 million Units per second

4 million watts per second

Nelkon’s “CSE Physics” Third Edition (1975) reproduces numerous past paper questions. Here is one from the Southern Regional Examining Board:-

A water-heating systemconsists of a boiler, a hot-water storage cylinder, a cold-water cistern and connecting pipes. The water is heated either by a fire under the boiler or by an electric immersion heater in the cylinder.

(a) Make a diagram of the system showing how the hot water circulates and how hot water which has been drawn off can be replaced by cold water. Include in your drawing a pipe from which the hottest water in the system could be drawn.

(b) Which of the alternative methods of heating the water is the most efficient? Explain why.

(c) The storage cylinder is usually made of copper and is covered with a fibre-glass jacket. Why are these two materials used?

(d) How much heat in megajoules (MJ) would be required to raise the temperature of the water in the cylinder from 15 degrees Celcius to 65 degrees Celcius if it holds 130 litres? (Specific heat capacity of water = 4200 J/kg.degC. 1 MJ =10^6 J).

This was for CSE students, the 1970s equivalent of Foundation Tier students, but is tougher than the Higher Tier question I quoted and indeed tougher than any Higher Tier questions on that paper. This is certainly a strong suggestion that physics exams are easier now than they were thirty years ago. The CSE question is also more “relevent to student’s lives” to quote the current thinking. Most of us will have to deal with central heating systems,. Rather fewer of us will work on tidal power stations. The purpose of education is to make students aware of (and ideally interested in) the world around them and to prepare them for their post-school lives. If current science exams are anything to go by, we are failing at both.


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