Friday, 10 June 2011

In Which I Discuss The Edexcel Biology Cockup

It was laughable really. It was the very first exam of the exam season. 31 of my finest piled into the hall. I didn't really get a good read through of the paper other than to smile inwardly at the knowledge that all my students should have been able to do all the questions, that I had predicted the "usual suspects" correctly for my private tutee, and that there should be a nice sprinkling of A grades come 18th August.

As an invigilator, I had to stay to the end of the other exams that morning, and was unable to catch up with any of my students until 3:15pm. The sole A2 student sitting the exam had spotted it, as had one of my colleagues' class. We both sat down and flicked through the paper, attempted the question, realised within about 20 seconds that there was a definite error. I e-mailed the exams officer.

At 3:30pm I sent the following tweet:


Nothing from anyone else. Not a peep. It was odd. January 2010 had taught us that students get quickly and amusingly angry if they think their exam is a pile of poo.

The next day I followed up via Twitter:


Fortunately the exams officer phoned me early, asked me if I was sure, and then said she would phone and ask them why they had not checked it (anyone who knows our exams officer would know that has been heavily censored). Edexcel confirmed to her that they had noticed it, there was an emergency moderation meeting happening later on the 17th, and that we were advised to apply for special consideration in case our kiddlywinks needed it (which we did).

It was really odd though - no one picked up on this. No journalists, no students complaining. It wasn't until Wednesday 8th June when I noticed the BBC had the story. I guess eventually it became big enough news. I felt rotten, because the question was such a gift. Here, crappily scanned and annotated (and I would argue, in line with Edexcel's copyright notice that says "the material on this site may only be reproduced for personal, non-commercial use" - I have fewer blog readers than students and no adverts on here), is the question:


Those of you who still remember your GCSE and A-level biology will be able to work out exactly what went wrong here. This is what the complementary strand should be:


And this is what the options were:


These sorts of questions are gifts for teachers and students alike. If you remember that C pairs with G, and A pairs with T except in RNA when it pairs with U, then you can do one of those questions in about 5 seconds. Because it's DNA you're asked for, you can immediately exclude options B and C as they contain U. Look at the remaining options, and because your RNA sequence starts with C, you know it must be option A. Except it isn't. My lot were pretty well drilled in this sort of question. They knew it was almost bound to come up, and they knew it was a good thing if it did. So it was a real kicker that it was one of the nice questions that was stuffed up.

However, my kids also have the sense to know when they've done it right, and when they know the answers given are wrong. I reckon they spent maybe two minutes struggling before carrying on. I have absolutely no sympathy for the student on the BBC article on the exam who said:
"For the first 15 minutes I looked at that question when I should have spent one minute on it"
I'd have no sympathy if he was one of mine - there's no excuse for spending 15 minutes on a MCQ one-mark question at the expense of the rest of the paper. Had this been a bigger issue, like the Maths and Business papers (and as I type more and more exams are materialising with huge errors), then students would have reasonably spent much more time on it.

Edexcel, conspicuously silent, appeared to have issued a statement to the media saying something along the lines of:
"Weeeeell, it's only one mark out of 425 so it's no big deal." (may not be actual words)
The BBC reported it as:
"The exam board said the question was worth one mark out of a possible 425"
The Grauniad said:
"Edexcel, which set the paper, said the question was worth one mark out of a possible 425"
Well, when you put it like that it's rather miniscule isn't it? Except that 425 is the total number of raw marks available for an entire A-level in biology. For the Unit 1 paper concerned, the marks are out of 80. Small fry compared to the Maths and Business papers, but enough to trouble a student. One mark could make the difference between an A and a B. It could also, at the other end of the scale, make the difference between being able to squeeze through to A2 and being forced to stop at AS.

I am invigilating my A2 biologists resitting (yes, all of them, and they've promised me they're really working this time) Unit 4 on Monday. I have only nine of them, so hopefully I will have an opportunity to work through the questions myself. As has been mentioned, for this set of A2 students, there are no second chances - these guys have got to get to university this year or face the hike in tuition fees that their successors are stuck with.

What should the exam boards be doing? Clearly checking more papers. It seems there is an unprecedented number of duff papers this year. This is the sort of thing that university undergrads could be paid to do, or even, you know, the teachers. The Independent suggested that MCQs should have an option for "none of the above", although that doesn't work if it's a worked question like the others. Just get some people in with decent subject knowledge to actually do the questions, not just flick through for proofreading.

And don't try to spin it by saying it's one mark out of 425. Because it's not and you know it.

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