Saturday, 31 May 2014

What practical assessment?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a high stakes accountability system will tend to prevent accurate teacher assessment.  Or at least, that is what Ofqual and the exam boards would like us believe.

Having talked to many teachers about controlled assessment (and having been involved in supervising coursework) I think that actually Ofqual and the exams boards are probably correct.  Current controlled assessment measures very little of a student's ability to skillfully carry out practical work, and is overly focussed on one (or at most two) practical experiences.  The time taken to ensure that the whole class completes the appropriate work, with the appropriate supervision eats into the time that could be used to teach content, or do other practical work.  (And involves numerous catch-up sessions after school and during holidays if my child's experience of year 11 science coursework is anything to go by). 

So Ofqual have, at one fell swoop, removed teacher assessed practical work from A-levels from 2015.  Instead, students will be expected to develop 12 practical skill sets through carrying out a minimum of 12 named practicals.  The skills are the same for all exam boards, but they are free to choose their own practicals.  The skills are given in appendix 5c of the subject criteria, but until the draft specifications are published (towards the end of June) we won't know what the practicals are.

Helen Rogerson published a blog outlining her view on the loss of practical assessment and I think that she makes a very good point. 


What if the removal of examined practical assessment means that teachers will stop doing practical work?  If we don't assess practical work, then even though teachers think that it is educationally desirable, they might stop doing it.  Senior leaders might decide that if practical work isn't assessed then why spend large part amounts of money on science equipment and consumables?

This appears to be the view of the Wellcome trust, various university academics and SCORE.  

Again, I can see why they are worried.  It may be that practical science becomes limited to the 12 named practicals in the specs - much like the teaching of English literature appears to be limited to the books named in the new GCSE specs.  Teachers will plan for, and teach, only the practicals that they have to provide evidence of the students carrying out.  On the other hand, anecdotal evidence from teachers who have switched from GCSE sciences to iGCSE sciences have said that the removal of controlled assessment work has led to an increase in the amount of practical work that they do.

Before we can start to discuss the effect of the changes to practical work it would be helpful to know what practical work A-level students currently do.  Michael Gove and Ofqual have referred to reports of Universities complaining that A-levels dont prepare students well enough for university.  It may be that, in some schools, practical work has already reduced to only that required to complete the controlled assessment part of the course.

In schools like that, it may be that having to do 12 practicals over the space of 2 years might actually be an improvement.

Without data though, we just dont know.

To that end, I am intending to carry out some preliminary research into what practical work in science (and particularly physics) is currently planned and carried out at A-level in a number of local educational establishments.  Im hoping that I will be able to revisit the schools as the changes to A-levels are made and see how they are responding to the new structure.

Watch this space!