Students at Belvedere College sitting exams. Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland
Dumbing down

Oops! There was a mistake in last year's Junior Cert science paper...and engineers are not happy

The State Examiner admitted the incorrect photo was used in the Physics section, but said it had no affect on students’ answers.

AN INCORRECT PHOTO was used in in the physics section of last year’s Junior Certificate Science paper.

An eagle-eyed mother , who is also a chemical engineer, was going through old exam papers with her child recently to help with preparations for this year’s Junior Cert exam when she came across the mistake.


Subsequently, she complained to the State Examiner about children being “taught ideology and not scientific facts” in the science exam.

The question is below:


The question says that the image on the exam paper is a “solar array in Germany which produces electricity equivalent to the power output of 20 nuclear reactors working at full capacity”.

However, the solar array is not in Germany.

It is actually in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Although it is a solar array (the Mojave Desert-based Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System), the size difference is quite incredible. The Vegas array is the largest such concentrated solar power plant in the world, with an output of 392 MW.

Pat Swords, another chemical engineer who was outraged at the error said that the solar array in Germany is only a test unit with an output of 1.5MW.

“It’s a big difference,” he said.

Swords was so displeased with the error in the exam that he put in an Access to Information on the Environment Request to the Department of Education.

The State Examiner replied to Swords stating that:

The stimulus information given as part of Question 7(a) on the 2013 Junior Certificate Science Higher Level Examination Paper was taken from a Reuters media article.

Speaking to, Swords said that he was “very annoyed” when the error on the paper was brought to his attention, stating, “it really is unacceptable that such an error is made in a state examination”.

Dumbing down

“They essentially pointed to something in an exam that doesn’t exist in Germany. Science teachers themselves should have picked up on the error,” he said.

Swords added:

The economist Morgan Kelly has just come out to say that the dumbing down of our education system is going to have detrimental effect. A 15-year-old should be able to trust that their exam paper is correct and that the basic information is correct.

“Exams are stressful and often there is a sense when something is not right. I think putting wrong images like this puts students at a disadvantage, as although they might say that it had no affect on the answer, if they are aware that something is not right, you can second guess yourself and that is not good in an exam situation,” he said.

He said that ultimately, his concerns are that the basics are not correct, stating that he felt it was “grossly unprofessional” to have such simple errors in a state exam.

Incorrect photo

When put to the State Examinations Commission by, they stated:

Your information that there is an incorrectly identified photograph in the Junior Certificate Higher Level Science paper of 2013 is correct.

The SEC added that the information used for the exam question was based on a Reuters news article, stating:

…The image is a photograph, not of a German solar energy plant, but of one in California. The photograph and the related statement were used as stimulus information to provide a context for two questions that followed.

The stimulus information was based on a Reuters news article from 2012.

That article reported that, on a particular weekend with favourable conditions, solar energy facilities in Germany had produced a combined energy output of 22 GW, and that this was equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity.

In the course of using this news article to generate a simplified statement for such a stimulus and acquiring a useful accompanying image, the solar power facility in the image became incorrectly identified as a German one, and an inaccuracy was introduced into the text, in that the combined output from a number of facilities was referred to as that of a single array.

The State Examiner said that although the photo was incorrectly used in the exam, “the questions that the candidates had to answer in the examination were not affected in any way by the location of the array or its stated capacity.

“Accordingly, this inaccuracy had no affect on candidate answering in the examination. Nonetheless, the SEC regrets that the inaccuracy was not identified in advance of the examination.”


In 2013, there were a number of errors in both the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate exam papers.

The Commission said that staff changes in the past year, coupled with the operational demands of preparing large quantities of papers for the exams, contributed to the errors.

In a report into the mistakes, the SEC said the level of error was “higher than normal” – and that did not include this error from the Junior Certificate science paper.

Read:Exam body blames ‘human error’ for mistakes in Leaving and Junior Cert>

Read: Over 1,600 Leaving Cert results upgraded after appeal>

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