Junior Cert maths students in ‘crux’ over misnamed Harry Potter symbol

Maths and science kicked off the second week of Junior Certificate exams yesterday.

Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) maths spokeswoman Elaine Devlin said there was no magic in the air for students faced with a shape described as a “Horcrux” on the second higher-level maths paper.

She said it was unfamiliar in mathematical terms, even if students were able to recognise it from the Harry Potter movies. Students pointed out on social media that the symbol was the Deathly Hallows, and not a Horcrux.

“Students would look at it on the exam paper and think ‘our teacher never did that with us’,” said Ms Devlin. “The 14-year-olds who worked hard and went in thinking they know their shapes would have found this very off-putting.”

In response to a query about the ‘horcrux’ question, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) said it was happy that students’ should have been able to answer the question. The Irish Examiner asked if any account would be taken in the marking scheme for teachers correcting the exam of the possible impact of symbol being incorrectly named, in terms of confusion or the time some students might have spent trying to figure it out.

An SEC spokesperson said the question involved a diagram made up of a triangle, a circle, and a line segment.

“It is explained in the question exactly how these shapes fit together in the diagram, and the tasks candidates are given based on this diagram are clear and unambiguous,” he said,

He said that the diagram was linked to an image from the Harry Potter series of books and films in order to provide a context that might interest students.

“In these books, this image is usually referred to as the Deathly Hallows symbol rather than the Horcrux symbol, as it was called in the question,” the SEC spokesperson said.

“Given the clear manner in which the diagram and the tasks are described, the SEC is satisfied that the contextual information provided will have had no impact on candidates ability to answer the question,” he said.

This was one of many questions that Ms Devlin thought was quite difficult, but she also said many questions were straightforward. There was a high degree of literacy skill required and she had serious concern about the use of imperial measures in another question based on pizzas, even if Junior Certificate students are accustomed to pizzas being marketed or sold in 9-inch or 12-inch sizes.

“If they had given a conversion rate from inches to centimetres or millimetres, they could have made sense of it. The question was quite demanding anyway,” she said.

Ms Devlin concluded that, although there were some nice questions, the exam presented many challenges for higher-level students.

She said ordinary-level Paper 2 also required a high level of literacy. She thought students would have been comfortable with a question about a survey on Netflix and Spotify use, but a co-ordinate geometry question was harder than usual.

The final exam of the current science curriculum was taken by Junior Certificate students yesterday.

ASTI science spokesman John Conneely had no major problems with the higher-level paper other than the scaling-in question based on a graph showing time and distance.

There was a theme of issues around pollution running through a number of sections, and students who had prepared well on gases would have been pleased with the chemistry section.

He said that, for ordinary-level students, the exam was of an expected standard, and a wide range of the course was covered.

For the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), David Duffy said the higher-level paper expected students to have learned definitions well and be well prepared on experiments, and seemed more theory-based than the ordinary-level exam.

Questions about rotation of a card windmill and about a vacuum flask may have caused difficulty for some students, but well-revised students should be happy with an exam that had no real surprises.

Mr Duffy had similar comments on the ordinary-level exam. He said students who had not revised their experiments well would have had difficulties.

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