Saturday, June 26, 2010

Exam Reaction - Agricultural Science

This post first appeared on my other site, The Frog Blog, a few days ago. I had been reacting to all the Leaving Certificate Science exams, me being a science teacher, but this particular exam got under my skin. I have been teaching Agricultural Science for nine years now and I am sick of the exam "shifting the goalposts" every year.

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 Every year the exam seems to expand our already ancient and outdated syllabus and this year is no exception.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 paaper 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.

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