o The Frog Blog: Exam Reaction - Agricultural Science

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Exam Reaction - Agricultural Science

Let me warn you! This gets nasty! I am so frustrated and annoyed, both for pupils of Agricultural Science and my fellow teachers. Every year the exam seems to expand our already ancient and outdated syllabus and this year is no exception. This year's higher level paper is a travesty - an utterly unfair assessment of the typical Agricultural Science pupil's learning over the past two years. How this exam is supposed to reflect the syllabus is unknown to me, and many of my fellow teachers that I have spoken to in the last hour. There are questions on this paper I can't answer - and I am a good teacher. I know for a fact that the majority of Agricultural Science teachers in this country couldn't answer all the parts of this questions - they couldn't even find information on them, as the syllabus (or any of the textbooks) doesn't mention them (Click here to see the syllabus by the way). Let me go through the paper first and outline how the syllabus and the exam simply don't match.

OK, I should mention that not all pupils will be disappointed with this exam, only the pupils hoping to achieve an A1. Pupils expecting a B or C will be satisfied that there was sufficient questions to tackle. Saying that, question 1 was awful and many pupils struggled to find six parts they could cover out of the ten. Parts (a), (b), (c) and (d) were particularly troublesome. Let me draw your attention to part (c) for a second - Account for the increasing popularity of maize silage as a feed for dairy cows. Only pupils who have hands on experience of growing maize or have visited farms growing maize would know this. Teachers would not cover this - why? - because maize wasn't been grown in Ireland 40 years ago when the syllabus was introduced, let alone maize silage. So how can a teacher, who is following the syllabus, be expected to teach about "increasing popularity of maize silage" when this trend has occurred 35 years after the syllabus was drafted? In part (e) pupils are asked what a refractometer is? Well it is an instrument used to measure the sugar content of sugar beet, which is one of the 250 plus experiments the pupils can be asked on! How many school have refractometers? I'd imagine somewhere close to 0.5%. Even if they did, where will they find a sugar beet to analyse - no one grows it anymore! So then how is a pupil expected to know this - it is grossly unfair! The rest of question 1 was fine, but by now pupils confidence must have been very low.

Now, on to question 2 - soil - and to my surprise this question is actually very straightforward, although poorly worded. Part (b) asks to outline the formation of peat bogs in Ireland. But, do they mean blanket bogs or basin bogs? Both are formed in completely different ways. Question 3, both options, were fine but again written using language that is poorly structured and difficult to understand. There seems to have been very little thought put into what pupils were expected to know. Part (a) in the first option put a lot of pupils off as many were confused as to why there would be a 30% cull rate! Question 4, the practicals were all doable while question 5 contained the now familiar sting in the tail. I can't think of a "role of footrot" in sheep production - I didn't think it had a role? What is footrot? - now that's easy and is how the question should have been phrased. Again the English lets down the exam. How did that question get past the drafters? And part (c) asked about the leaf to stem ratio in relation to silage quality. Again, only pupils who would have been lucky enough to carryout some on site analysis of silage at a pit would probably be able to answer that. Question 6 was again tough. In part (a) pupils were asked for four components of a blight programme for maincrop potatoes. Even the best pupils would struggle to find four. Part (b) asked for four reason why scutch grass is considered a troublesome weed - again the best pupils will struggle to find four. And part (d) - the calculation of the 1000 grain weight - will catch out plenty.

Now onto question 7 - genetics. I personally would never have mentioned the Freemartin Condition to my pupils. It isn't in the syllabus (no knowledge of genetic disorders is mentioned in the syllabus) nor any of the textbooks and I can be confident the majority of teachers don't mention it. This is a grossly unfair question and the exam setters should be called to order, both for their lack of knowledge of the syllabus and their ridiculously poor grasp of the English language. Question 8 was actually quite fair in comparison to the previous questions and pupils shouldn't have had too many problems here while question 9 again had a sting in the tail. Part (a) asked why abattoirs fast the animals before slaughter and allow the carcasses to hang for a number of days before sale. Again, this is simply not on the syllabus! I only know this because my family are butchers! Very few teachers would know this and therefore are not equipped to pass this onto their pupils. Why make this exam so difficult? Are they deliberately trying to curb the dramatic rise in interest in the subject which this year topped 6000 pupils?

Agricultural Science teachers are not farmers and have very little support from the Department of Education and Skills (or the Department of Agriculture for that matter). Next year will be the first time teachers of the subject will get structured support from the soon to be disbanded SLSS and, up until now, it has been left to teachers to share resources and help each other out. We urge you, Minister Mary Coughlan, to give us a structured syllabus so we can provide our pupils with a knowledge of today's agricultural structures and systems. Stop moving the goal posts! The State Examinations Commission should focus on the syllabus, and only set exams based on that. Then they will realise what teachers have to work with. It is their job to produce an exam paper that will assess the pupils knowledge of the topics within the syllabus - not anywhere else. The only way to ensure that this won't happen in the future is to provide a new syllabus. A "new" syllabus was drafted 14 years ago but according to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA):
"A review of the Leaving Certificate Agricultural Science syllabus has taken place and a revised syllabus has been completed. This revised syllabus, when approved by the NCCA, will be forwarded to the Department of Education and Science for implementation in schools in due course".
This new syllabus is already out date! What is going on here? Maybe the NCCA should just remove the subject altogether - that would make it fair. I am a frustrated teacher of a subject I, and my pupils, love. Give us all a fair deal!

I must stress, these are my opinions not that of the school.


Anonymous said...

It is time someone spoke out as clearly as you have. I am just as angry as you are. Well written.
The practical assessment also needs a big shake up! "no maximum marks for minimum work" was this years slogan yet the minimum work is what was/is stated on the guidelines/syllabus - or what ever you want to call it...
Yours in teaching.

Humphrey Jones said...

Cheers. I've been getting a lot of support from fellow ag science teachers. It is so annoying see our syllabus being expanded year on year. There will be a chance for Ag Science teachers to review the exam paper on Tuesday next in Athlone. I can only imagine it will be fractious.

Anonymous said...

I would absolutely agree with the above comments about the higher Ag Science paper. My students knew their course very well and did excellent orals. However this paper will challenge them to achieve A1 grades. They had many visits to local farming enterprises as they are town kids mainly. It is such a pity that this subject has taken a big knock this year and i'm not sure i'll be encouraging students in the future to take this subject.
We are an agricultural country and it is great to introduce it to the younger people. I am not marking exams this year but i am hoping that other ag science teachers will fight a corner for the students on this unfair paper at the marking conference. I firmly believe that some parts of questions off the syllabus should be removed before marking commences.
Ag Science teacher in the North East.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this up. I thought it was a very awkward exam. As you said, my confidence just plummeted after looking at those tricky short questions. I really had to struggle to answer six questions, and I was banking on genetics, which was a very awkward question, so I had to leave it. I was really hoping for an A1 here, and they really just betrayed the students. I can't imagine that those who wrote the paper hadn't a clear knowledge of the syllabus, and it just seems very unfair. Anyway, it's out of my mind now. No point in doing a post-mortem. Do update on how the conference goes :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Humphrey,

In total agreement with everything you said. Have posted on it myself and have heard same opinions from other ag science teachers. You are most certainly not alone. Have a read of some of the feedback, I've replied to some of it here. The exam should be defined by the syllabus not the other way round. The marking conference should be interesting....


Humphrey Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cornelia said...

thanks for that very realistic view of the paper Humphrey. How can we explain this to pupils coming out of the exam that some of those questions were not from syllabus. its beyond frustrating.

AOC said...

It was such an unrealistic paper.. Love the analytical statement above. Technically if teachers & students got together on this they could create a lot of trouble for the State Examinations Commission as Stated above the syllabus & Exam 2010 don't match. What will be done with the marking scheme 2010???