Catastrophe for physics at A level

November 24, 1995

Simon Szreter makes a serious point about the probable effects of disparate marking schemes. One has to ask why there is often such resistance to resolving this anomaly, which comes up regularly for discussion. My own explanation, at least for the science/humanities disparity, is thermometrical bilingualism (or lack of it) in relation to the murky art of assessment.

I suggest that "scientific" types who use the Celsius thermometer find no problem in marking students' work in regular increments out of 100 by analogy to the freezing and boiling of water (0-100oC). Humanities academics by contrast, for whom Celsius is largely irrelevant, mark students' work by analogy to the familiar Fahrenheit scale of freezing and boiling British weather (ca. 32-80oF), in which 70 intuitively indicates an excellent achievement but anything much over 75 seems unacceptably "hot". Television weather reports readily acknowledge the persistence of these two thermometrical cultures in the United Kingdom by giving temperatures in both Fahrenheit and Celsius. "Hard" scientists are no less culture-bound than anyone else; they never give marks above 100 in case the assignment evaporates. Does anyone have a better explanation?

Professor Brian Bocking Tisbury, Wilts.

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