Exam season 2019: A look back on all the controversial events

Students sitting exam
by Hayley Pearce | 25 June 2019

Now exams are drawing to a close, let's look at what happened

From leaks to bizarre questions and off-spec content, this year’s exams had it all. GCSEs, A-levels and SQA exams were all embroiled in some form of controversy over the last couple of months, though it has to be said that maths was the main offender in terms of both security breaches and concerns around difficulty level.

So, what went on? Here’s a recap of the biggest stories and scandals to take place during the 2019 exam season.

Leaked exam papers

First up, let’s talk about leaks – real ones, fake ones and potential ones. It would be infuriating to know that at least some students potentially saw at least part of an exam you took ahead of time. Equally, several hoax leaks must only have added to the anxiety and stress that naturally surrounds exam season anyway.

Plenty of fake news surrounded AQA's GCSE Biology and GCSE Maths papers, with doctored front pages of the exams posted online and causing uncertainty about whether or not the papers were leaked.

It turns out they weren’t, but that doesn't mean lots of students weren't scared by the stories, with AQA having to contact Twitter to ask for "fraudulent" posts to be removed.

Fast forward to the day before the Pearson Edexcel A-level Maths: Statistics and Mechanics paper was sat, and a scribbled out page of the exam was posted on Twitter, with the whole paper being offered for sale.

It is not yet clear how many people saw it, but some students say they were offered the paper in a private WhatsApp group as well.

Pearson Edexcel’s A-level Maths papers have now been leaked three years in a row. In a statement, Sharon Hague, head of Pearson's UK schools organisation, said it will analyse student performance while marking the paper to identify any “patterns in the results that are unusual for either a particular school or college or students.”

Pearson Edexcel has said that actions and possible actions it will take to make grading fair for A-level Maths students are:

  • Removing the questions made available prior to the exam
  • Conducting additional statistical analysis on individual student and group performance
  • Withholding results for individual students who have been involved in malpractice

In response, TSR member megf.sykes said: “Honestly they wonder why we distrust the education system, starts with the difficulty of standardised testing n then goes ahead to the unfairness of high difficulty papers and complete leaks. I'm so worried and the statement in response didn't reassure me whatsoever.”

An AQA GCSE Religious Studies exam paper was leaked and circulated on Snapchat before thousands of students sat it. It is now the subject of a criminal investigation.

Other security breaches

Then there were the papers that weren’t necessarily put up for sale online or shared around via messaging apps, but were found to have been stolen in transit or accessed by students at an exam centre.

Someone stole a batch of AQA AS sociology papers 1 and 2, GCSE French reading, foundation and higher tier and GCSE French writing, foundation and higher tier by intercepting them during their journey from the exam board to a centre.

And while investigating the A-level Maths paper leak, Pearson Edexcel became aware of another security breach at the same centre, this time involving one of its A-level Further Maths papers. A packet containing the question booklets had been opened.

The exam board took precautionary steps and replaced the paper ahead of exam day.

TSR member mnot said: “It's mad that it’s the same centre, action needs to be taken against the schools involved. Maybe for a first offence schools could receive a small fine and probationary period but multiple breaches, I think a ban on hosting examinations, more hefty fine and a probationary period should be employed.”

In 2018 as well, there were four security breaches involving material leaked by students which is on par with this year.

Plagiarised maths question

How difficult is it to write an original maths question? As students sitting the Pearson Edexcel GCSE Maths paper 3 found out, sometimes exam boards need inspiration.

If any of them took AQA’s certificate in Further Maths alongside Maths, they may well have recognised a question that appeared to have been lifted straight from a textbook.

TSR member Jenn1946 said: “I think it was a stupid thing to do! Why couldn't they have made their own questions? The whole country might have done that question before the exam. But, to be fair there are always going to be similarities between papers and revision questions.”

'Impossible' questions

If Pearson Edexcel's A-level Maths papers weren’t leaked, they were torn apart for being “completely unreasonable”.

Students took to social media, and even started petitions, to make their frustration known after Pearson Edexcel, they say, “abandoned the specification” while writing papers 1 and 2.

Pearson Edexcel assured students that mark schemes change every year to reflect difficulty and performance.

Scottish students complained that the SQA Biology paper resembled a Maths paper, and called for a lower pass mark, and took particular issue with the “impossible” chocolate box question on the SQA Maths paper.

Off-spec topics

AQA angered students when it asked about electrospray ionisation, cobalt and period 4 in A-level Chemistry paper 1.

Many of them say they hadn’t learned the necessary content because they didn’t realise it was on the spec.

Kris93444 said: “I feel like they had the right to ask us about cobalt(II) because they said to use it as an example and it is the same shapes as copper(II) if you think about it. Electrospray is the one I believe we should get marks awarded as it was removed from the spec.”

But an AQA spokesperson said: "Electrospray ionisation still falls under section of the specification as a type of ionisation that could be assessed as part of Time of Flight mass spectrometry.”

It’s not the first year AQA has been accused of including content that isn’t part of the specification.

In 2018, James Chadwick’s experiment came up in a GCSE triple science Chemistry paper, and students (and teachers) were divided on whether or not the question was fair.

Offensive and triggering material

AQA apologised over the inclusion of a controversial extract in its GCSE English Language paper.

Although it wasn’t referenced in the excerpt students read in the exam, later on in the story a girl is sexually assaulted, leading some students to say the passage should have come with a trigger warning.

An AQA spokesperson said: “There weren’t any references to sexual assault on our GCSE English Language paper.

 “An extract on the paper was from a story that features this later on – but this was an unseen extract so no-one had to read the whole story.  

“We don’t think the choice of extract was inappropriate – but we’re sorry to hear that some people don’t agree, as we’d never want to upset anyone.”

In a Pearson Edexcel GCSE maths question students were asked the number of calories in a woman’s breakfast.

Several students say it triggered them due to past experiences with eating disorders and calorie-counting.

A spokesman for Pearson said: “In a maths exam taken last week, candidates were asked to solve a practical problem calculating the number of calories in a banana and a yogurt. We have reviewed the question and find it to be valid.

“We encourage any student who thinks that this question may have impacted their performance to get in contact with us via their school.

“We understand the summer exam series is a stressful time for students and we wish all students every success with their remaining exams.”

Schools not teaching the right content

Can you imagine opening the exam paper to find none of the questions related to what you’d been taught?

That's what happened to students at a private school who were taught the wrong text ahead of their Cambridge International IGCSE English Literature exam.

On a TSR thread, BlinkyBill said: “Oh I really feel for these students. That must have been such a stressful experience. I am sure the exam board and school will be doing all they can to support the girls and make sure they're treated fairly. Exams are such a difficult time anyway, it's hard to imagine how this would feel on top of that.”

And then there was the school in Leeds that neglected to teach students about a topic that came up in a GCSE Religious Studies paper.

The headteacher applied to the exam board for special consideration for all the students who sat the exam, but the school won't find out if the mistake has impacted their results until August.

Phew! There was plenty of drama surrounding this year's exam season. But then again, there is every year.

Do you think 2019 has been the most controversial exam season ever?

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