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It's THAT time of the year again!

The annual 'are national school exams dumbed down?' controversy approaches. Well here are some examples from this year's GCSE Science A & Physics (Energy and Electricity) Paper AQA Board.

6C During the next three-month period, the householder used 600kWh.

Electricity costs 15 pence per kilowatt-hour.

total cost = number of kilowatt-hours x cost per kilowatt-hour

What was the total cost of the electricity for this period?

1 £80

2 £90

3 £100

4 £110

Questions like this are ubiquitous in exams of many types designed for 16 to 18 year olds today. The formula is stated and I am of the opinion that anyone could answer 80% satisfactorily of the paper without ever having studied the subject at all, simply requiring a good grasp of elementary arithmatic. In my day this question could easily be answered correctly - by an eight year old.

And what is one to make of a question like this?

Same paper

8D The government wants 20% of all electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2020. It is considering building more wind farms, tidal and wave-powered generators and nuclear power stations.

Why would a scientist consider this statement to be wrong?

1 Coal will continue to be available for 200 years.

2 Nuclear energy should not be included as a renewable source.

3 The decision should be made by scientists not politicians.

4 These renewable energy sources are not reliable.

This is what the education planners have been doing throughout our lifetime. Since the war, nothing done in Britain has been so disasterous and we are as a nation paying and are going further to pay dearly for it.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

1. The future availability of coal depends on (a) levels of usage (b) discovery and exploitation of new sources and (c) international politics. This statement needs to be qualified by words such as 'At current levels of usage....."

2. Nuclear power stations consume U-238 that cannot be replaced. However, the potential supply is so large that fission power can be considered 'renewable' for practical purposes. No source of energy is infinitely renewable, because the Sun will eventually fail.

3. The decision has to be made by politicians (on the advice of scientists and others) because they have to balance non-scientific factors such as cost, economic forecasts, national security and public opinion.

4. This is true of wind power, rather less so of wave power but untrue of nuclear power.

Do I pass? Have I rightly guessed the prejudices of the examiners?

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

Nuclear power may be considered a renewable energy source, because about 97% of the fuel still remains usable after the first time it is "spent" in the reactor. If fuel reprocessing was widely used, then nuclear fission would become a renewable source.

This is a more accurate use of the word renewable, as there is no process of renewing in wind, wave or solar power, those sources are just (intermittently) available by natural processes.

But one takes the question to be an attempt at anti-nuclear indoctrination, with the "correct" answer being 2.

Although this question is ridiculous on another level. It asks "why would a scientist consider this statement to be wrong?" But both sentences are factually accurate: the government does want 20% of electricity generated by "renewable" sources by 2020; they also want to build more wind farms, tidal and wave-powered generators and nuclear power stations.

So if "a scientist" takes issue with this simple statement of fact he must argue that the government do not want 20% of electricity generated by "renewable" sources or that the government is not looking to build the mentioned power sources.

The question does not provide a statement which "a scientist" (why not simply a person?) may take issue with. So it is offensive on the grounds of incorrect English usage even if one agrees with all the green assumptions with which is it loaded.

They should perhaps have written in the question "the government considers nuclear power to be a renewable source of energy". Or "To achieve this goal, the government is considering building...nuclear power stations". Then it would at least make sense, and one of the given answers could actually be logically applied, irrespective of political assumptions.

But then that is a semantic argument settled not by science, but by one's political prejudices, as one can make an argument that the word renewable, as someone would interpret it before the present green era, more correctly describes nuclear power than e.g. wind.

There are a few implicit assumptions that a candidate must make to satisfy the examiners in answering this question: "a scientist" means someone with entrenched views conforming to those of the green establishment; the word "renewable" does not mean that which can be renewed, but that which the green establishment looks favourably upon; and the fact that the government is considering new nuclear power stations means that they are applying the green label of "renewable" to them.

I did GCSEs not even a decade ago, and I don't remember the physics papers being multiple choice. I also recall that there were tiers, however, of foundation, intermediate and higher and I did the higher paper. I was aware that they were not as difficult as the papers of previous decades, but I don't remember a question so ridiculous as being asked to evaluate a quantity having been given the formula as simply the multiplication of two numbers which are also given.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

You might ask, why has physics education been so debased? You only need to ask yourself in what way is it in the greens' interest to teach the principles which would allow people to critically evaluate the environmentalist position?

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

My old Physics teacher would be turning over in his grave if he saw questions like that.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

Some of my Engineering Professors would be rolling their eyes, but some of them would be nodding in agreement. I was right on the edge of the Excel Revolution (although at my school it was Quattro Pro). The outgoing professors embraced data collection possibilities and were wary of the answers, the incoming professors had a percentage who just embraced the answers.

I love my computer. I love the utility of spreadsheets. I quiver in fear of the number of "true believers" using them.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

Hmmh, what I think is that these questions are mixing religion and politics into the subject of physics. It seemed not too long ago, some place in the past, a similar process was happening. I believe they called it Inquisition back then. It's philosophy was that whomever had the power made the rules.... I don't think it has changed very much. Instead on a hooded priest imposing on you threatening with the being burned at the stake, is an imposing teacher threatening a teen into thinking a certain way or else..

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

For all the teachers that are trying to impart nonsense to our children, there are 5 just trying to balance teaching, paperwork, and managing the score expectations of the parents. They have pressure on all sides to "optimize" the solution to the problem given them.

We could imbue all kinds of conspiracy crap into the test above or we can recognize that spreadsheet man is involved.

The future is a scary place for the newly born. Schools as they exist today are potentially gonna disappear. There is an online High School available now.

wmbriggs.com has an interesting discussion of the downfall of books. http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=2728

Schools have every chance of seeing a similar fate. My wife, who has 4 degrees (Sociology, Forrest Recreation Management, Environmental Education [MS], and Teaching) and is a supporter of public schools is having it beat into her head that trusting public school teachers to educate your child is shear folly. This doesn't mean that they child can't get a good education through the process. It just means that the parents have to augment that education regularly. If that need for augmentation goes too far, you suddenly are asking... Hmm. should we just home school.

It is not an ideal solution. There are scale things that schools can do so much better. Labs for instance. The problem is, those labs are being starved.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

I'm surprised that universities in England and Wales don't just cut through the whole sorry system by setting their own joint entrance exams. 'A' levels would become obsolete immediately and the Unis might make a substantial amount of cash out of it.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

The answers I received to my posting were more or less as expected. Even the younger members of the forum appear to be on the same wavelength as me. I have been out of secondary and tertiary education for five years and then I wasn’t a teacher. I found the GCSE Physics papers from which I quoted, on a fly tipped rubbish dump at the back of my house. Titter ye not! No! No!
So I’m afraid I can’t answer if you satisfied the examiners’ mindset Frank. Actually it’s been an interesting few weeks on the subject of the veracity of exams. The actress Imogen Stubbs has found out that renowned Shakespearean theatre directors including her own husband Trevor Nunn, can’t get one of the new A-level A* grades in English Literature Shakespearean analysis! The best they could manage was a B! I myself am very sceptical about exams anyway.

Re: It's THAT time of the year again!

There is a belief inside education circles here in the states that curriculum should be unified. It is vital, in their minds that a student in Wasilla, AK be able to move to Washington DC and not be either ahead or behind. For some unknown (ok I do know) reason, they see education as the summation of facts and experiences and that to be fair each student must be presented with the same set of facts and experiences. UGH!

The first half is correct. It is the second half that is wrong and devilishly wrong. It is the variances in the educational processes that make the world better. When we unify our curriculum, we quite often stifle what could happen with just a little bit of looseness.