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Maths Grinds
15 Feb 2020

The “New Standard” in Science Education

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In 2019 the two tier exam system for JC  Science (Junior Cert “Middle School” Science Exam) in Ireland was replaced by a common level. So, instead of having students choose which level they want to take, i.e ordinary or higher level they now have one level to take, common level.

A teacher I work with had a son who took the exam and suggested I look at it because he felt it was a dumbing down of the exam. A quick google of this new exam does not look good, from the Irish Times I found this rather damming article:

Science teachers hit out at the new common-level Junior Cycle paper, saying that it does not prepare students for Leaving Cert physics and chemistry. Michael McGrath, ASTI subject representative and a science teacher at St Augustine’s College in Dungarvan, Co Waterford had a “minimal” amount of physics and chemistry and almost no questions on experiments. “It is totally dumbed down and I feel despondent,” Mr McGrath said.

And I do feel this is a fair assessment of the new exam. And how should we compare the new exam of 2019 with the old exam of 2018; since the two levels are replaced by one? The new level as a minimum should be at least as difficult as the old ordinary level and at most as difficult as the old higher level. But of course since it is a common level it is likely to be as difficult as the old ordinary level, and this is fair enough, I suppose, kinda, maybe.

Anyway, I think we can all agree if these two levels merged to form an exam easier than the old ordinary level then we have a dumbing down. Imagine combing two exercise regimes, an easy level of 20 push-ups and a hard level of 100 push-ups and arrive at a common level of 10 push-ups; something went wrong, right?

Question 3 on the 2019 exam is a nice standard question of Science. I’m sure you remember this, you must name each part in the cycle:

Seems fair right? Well I left something out. Rather then filling in the blank students have to match the numbers with the four answers. Okay, easier to do but not super easy right? Well no, again I left something out, look at the choices.

Shocking! Students simply have to read “Air currents cause clouds to move onshore” and match that with the picture. This is a description-matching-picture exercise, it has nothing to do with Science except that Science is the context. Here is how the question should be (I’m imaging a space beside ABCD where students fill in the blank), I found this on 

This is much more suitable for a common level and represents actual basic knowledge of the Water Cycle. Anyway, if you find reading and matching picture too difficult then maybe question 4 is for you. Question 4 requires that you can count circles, here we go.

Can you count to 4? Then you can do this “Science” question. When I look at the 2018 Science exam I can’t find questions which are like these “non-Science” questions. Each question is testing actual Science knowledge. So in my opinion this is a step backwards and I think I’ll finish this post with another quote from the Irish Times article:

Luke Saunders, founder and a science teacher at Jesus and Mary Secondary School in Enniscrone, Co Sligo, was slightly less critical of the new format but still had several concerns. “It does feel overly simple for the high achievers and feels like a step backwards in terms of properly challenging the top third of the class,” he said. “This is a view, I believe, that is shared among most science teachers. By focusing on scientific literacy, almost anyone with a bit of common sense could do this paper, even with little or no preparation. It has perhaps moved too far from factual knowledge.”

Too far from factual knowledge, what a wonderful euphemism for dumbing down, I’ll remember that one!

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