The West

Anyone who has ever sat an exam will remember that sweaty palmed sensation of reading through the questions for the first time and wondering if you really do remember as much as you thought you did.

You will recall the cramping in your fingers after filling page after page for three hours, the way your heart lurched when you come across a baffling question and the relief when you finished the paper.

Most Year 12s cope well with exam stress but the pressure-cooker environment is intense enough without the distraction of being told there are errors in the exam.

Every year a few mistakes creep into the test papers. But this year's exam period, which finished yesterday, has been a horror stretch for the WA Curriculum Council because of the number of significant errors found, raising many questions about its proof-reading processes.

This was despite tighter controls being put in place after the council revealed in April that it had miscalculated final scores for students who did practical exams in three courses last year.

The papers are checked and double-checked, so there really is no excuse for a date in a history exam to be out by 10 years or for a physics question to refer to the wrong unit of measurement. Other mistakes crept into music, maths and business management and enterprise papers.

Sadly, the smartest students are the ones who suffer the most because they are the ones more likely to notice errors that slip past examiners. It's distressing for them to waste time wondering if there is a problem with the question or their interpretation.

Parents and teachers have raised valid concerns that students may have been disadvantaged because of the way some errors were managed after they were picked up.

In history, a cartoon was incorrectly labelled 1915 instead of 1925. The mistake went unnoticed until students started the exam, so when the Curriculum Council notified exam centres to tell students to change the date, it also told supervisors to give students an extra 10 minutes time to make up for the interruption.

The problem was that not all students got the extra time. When you're writing an essay, 10 minutes can make a big difference to how much you get on the page.

Understandably, parents are concerned that students who missed out on that extra time could also miss out on extra marks. And for students aiming for a highly competitive university course such as law or medicine, every mark counts.

The Curriculum Council is adamant it can compensate those students in the marking process so they will not be disadvantaged.

But is there really any way to compensate students for the confusion and distress they suffer in an exam that has been interrupted or contains errors? And how can they be recompensed for the amount of time they spend worrying about the exam after it's over, instead of focusing on the next subject?

The council also came under fire for a printer's mistake which forced about 50 students from six schools to wait for up to 40 minutes for a new economics exam to be delivered because the ones they had been given contained history questions.

It also copped criticism when supervisors at one school let maths students keep their notes with them. It is encouraging that some students opted not to use their notes because they knew it was cheating. But how will the council be able to tell the difference?

In another embarrassing episode, the original food science and technology exam had to be rewritten because it was accidentally displayed on the council's website for two days.

However, the council did manage to avoid problems in the biological sciences and specialist maths courses by pulping the first copies of those exams after they were found to contain errors. They were reprinted at the printer's cost.

This year's exam period was always going to be a difficult one for the Curriculum Council. Not only was it the first year in which the new WA Certificate of Education (WACE) replaced the Tertiary Entrance Exams (TEE) system but the introduction of many new courses meant the council had to organise 109 practical and written exams, compared with just 44 in 2007.

And now that most students can spread news of any problems instantly via the internet, the chances of keeping errors under wraps are remote.

Education Minister Liz Constable is furious that any error could have passed unnoticed by the checking process. "No mistake in an exam paper is acceptable," she told Parliament last week.

The Opposition has claimed that cuts to the Curriculum Council's budget meant it has had to do more with less, contributing to the number of errors. But Dr Constable says the State Government has, in fact, doubled the funds to meet exam costs - from $7 million in 2007 to about $14 million this year - because of the increase in the number of courses being examined.

She has said the problems were "doubly disappointing" in the light of findings of a panel she appointed to review the errors made in the marking of last year's practical exams. But she is yet to release those findings, except to say the panel had found the rapid increase in the number and complexity of exams "gave rise to some organisational arrangements at the Curriculum Council that probably increased the opportunities for risks in managing the external examinations".

To guard against the sort of problems that emerged in April, the Curriculum Council appointed external consultants to audit all the processes associated with this year's exams. It has also pledged to investigate each of the exam bungles uncovered in recent weeks. But it has not said whether it will reveal to the public what went wrong.

Even though most exams went off without a hitch, the problems that did occur will extend beyond their effects on this year's students. Any blunder, no matter how minor, shakes people's confidence in everything else the Curriculum Council manages.

The only way to regain that confidence is to reveal how the problems occurred and what measures will be put in place to stop them happening again.

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