23 April 2013

Dara O'Briain and the "boring" "easy" exam paper

In this post, I'm going to highlight the factual errors in the news reporting, give some explanation as to the context, and raise an important question about the coverage.

The articles I am criticising include:
The original Radio Times feature - not available on the web
The Independent article - lifted from the Radio Times: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/news/dara-obriain-calls-for-more-taxing-exams-after-scoring-a-in-10minute-gcse-maths-paper-8583201.html
The Telegraph article - lifted from the Radio Times: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10011172/Dara-OBriain-GCSE-maths-paper-not-interesting-enough-for-bright-students.html

Factual Takedown

The articles have most points in common. He took a one hour GCSE paper by OCR from June 2011. It took him 10 minutes. He got 47 out of 60. This is given a grade A*.

1) "Ó’Briain sat a GCSE higher-level paper from June 2011, set by OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations), an examining board considered by some to be the most rigorous in the subject." (Independent)

Here is the paper: http://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/86986-question-paper-unit-a502-02-unit-b-higher-tier.pdf

OCR is one of three English awarding bodies, whose GCSE specification is designed by Government, regulated by Government, and has grade boundaries adjusted by Government. It is not correct to say it is "the most rigorous", and if this is thought by some people, they have a misunderstanding of how exams are now designed and thresholds decided.

2) "The presenter of Dara Ó Briain's Science Club picked up full marks on Question 3, which asked students to trace a graph detailing Olympic men’s triple jump records and repeated that feat on the next question on trigonometry." (Independent)

Question 3 did not ask students to trace a graph, instead it asked them to plot additional points on a graph, and then interpolate data from the scatter graph given.

Question 4 was not a trigonometry question, it was about calculating angles using circle theorems.

3) "A slip on the final page saw him simplify (√5)4 [sic] as 625 rather than 25 (625’s square root)." (Independent)

This should of course have read (√5)4 but the Independent did not take care to print the correct maths.

4) "“There should be an additional, challenging paper,” he argued." (Independent)

There is. In fact, there are several. See below.


The paper that O'Briain did is not a final GCSE paper. It is a one hour modular paper designed to be taken part of the way through the course, and it covers only a small proportion of the full GCSE syllabus.
The specification can be found here: http://www.ocr.org.uk/Images/83350-specification.pdf

The paper is Unit B, covering some number, algebra, shape and data, but only worth 25% of the marks for the full qualification.
The full list of topics is: General problem solving skills • Fractions, decimals and percentages • Indices and surds • Functions and graphs, Inequalities • General measures • Angles and properties of shapes • Transformations • Bivariate data • Vectors
It has 11 questions, hardly enough to be described as a full test of GCSE.

Getting 43 out of 60 on this particular paper is worth 90% on a standardised scale, which is used to balance the difficulty of different modules when adding final marks together. 90% is the overall percentage needed to get an A* (360 out of 400). It is not fair to say that someone getting 43 on this paper would necessarily get an A* in their final GCSE. They would have to do the same OR BETTER in another 3 hours of exams.

There are many "harder" papers available for students, especially ones who are heading for A or A* in their GCSEs. Here are several:
Edexcel: http://www.edexcel.com/QUALS/MATHS-AWARDS/ALGEBRA/Pages/default.aspx
CIE: http://www.cie.org.uk/qualifications/academic/middlesec/igcse/subject?assdef_id=873
AQA: http://aqamaths.aqa.org.uk/index.php?CurrMenu=294

Remember that around 1 in 12 school students currently get an A*, it is not an easy grade to get. You can see my takedown of Gove's press release in the Daily Mail about this here.

EDIT: Of course I missed out some additional context. This paper is out of date. The syllabus is no longer examined in this way, because Modular Maths has fallen out of favour. Students cannot do a 1 hour paper part of the way into the course, but instead must do all the papers at the end, even if they are split up into these 1 hour "Bite-sized chunks" (Gove's words, not mine). So it's even more obvious that O'Briain was duped. His tweets on the matter read: "To clarify from some headlines today. I did not "call" for exams to be made more difficult. I'm a comedian. I don't get to "call" for stuff. Somebody put an exam paper in front of me and I expressed surprise that it only featured short questions."

One further bit of context. O'Briain has degrees in Maths and Theoretical Physics. He is currently doing more work on Maths through his TV programme, now in its second series. So he is an adult completely focused on Maths, doing a one-quarter Maths exam.
Most students would be doing more then 10 GCSEs with no previous degree knowledge to help them out. So if he finds it "easy" and "boring", that's no great surprise.

So what is the point of the Radio Times article?

One, it publicises his new TV show. Did I mention he has a second series on Dave starting next week?

Two, it fits in with the narrative that GCSE Maths is easy. Any news story that says "You only need 16% to get a C grade" is doing exactly the same thing. It doesn't matter what the facts are, or the context of the paper in which you need to get 16% (ask me if you want the truth behind that one!), it denigrates the hard work that students are doing, and plays on the fears of ordinary people that somehow there's something WRONG WITH OUR SCHOOLS!

If you have any questions or comments about my views (as a Head of Maths in a successful comprehensive school), feel free to leave comments, email me at adamcreen@hotmail.com, tweet me @adamcreen, but don't believe the lies.


RedEaredRabbit said...

If someone with degrees in Maths and Theoretical Physics only just scrapes the top mark, I would expect the story to be that the exam is too hard!

I do think grade boundaries is an important topic - far too important for the likes of the media or politicians, anyway.

michaelt1979 said...

If O'Briain thinks that's bad he should see the dumbing down at primary level. I got almost 100% on the primary maths challenge in just 8 minutes and I only have joint honours in maths. Just shocking