Questions expecting short answers and the use of multiple choice have made biology and chemistry exams easier in the UK, according to assessment assessor Ofqual.
The examinations watchdog analysed GCSE and A-level exams for the two science subjects - comparing papers taken by thousands of youngsters between 2003 and 2008 - and found that although the overall curriculum had stayed the same, examiners were asking the questions in an easier way.
In GCSE biology, Ofqual said that more multiple choice questions made the exams less taxing for students - occasionally the incorrect options were incredibly obvious to any child with a grasp of English because they used made-up words.
In A-level tests, short-answer questions made exams easy meat for candidates - reducing questions to simple memory recall tests, cutting down the amount of material teenagers had to read and process, and making it harder for clever clogs to show off their abilities.
Similar criticisms were levelled against GCSE chemistry: Ofqual said that the exams limited the opportunity for top-flight students to demonstrate their skills in organising information and analysing and interpreting complex data.
The assessment differed across exam boards, with Northern Ireland's CCEA coming in for a special hammering; it was criticised for "an over-generous mark scheme for the free-prose questions" and less complex coursework.
The watchdog also looked at A-level geography papers between 2001 and 2010, and found that the subject had "softened" on, er, geographical content, and coursework was "less demanding" after the requirement for a 4,000-word report was scrapped.
Some exam specifications have already changed since 2008. But Ofqual have said that their findings on exam quality will be taken into account when the National Curriculum for A-level and GCSE subjects is reviewed in the near future.
A Department for Education spokesman said Ofqual's standards review laid bare a “gradual decline in standards, and that the exams system as a whole falls short of commanding the level of confidence we need”.
He added: "These reports show that in recent years not enough has been demanded of students, and that they are not being asked to demonstrate real depth and breadth of knowledge." ®