Assessing practical science

For a change, instead of sounding off about the Government’s plans, I’m going to have a moan about idiotic aspects of some science specifications.

We all know that practical work is an important part of science, don’t we?  So it seems to make sense that it should be assessed, in some way or another, and contribute to GCSE and A-level grades.  When I was at school, that assessment was a 3 hour practical exam at A-level (which probably didn’t entirely do what it was meant to, given that I did well in them despite being the most ham-fisted person in the lab you could imagine).  There have been various changes since then – no, don’t worry, I’m not going to list all of them!

I want to focus on the current version , called an ISA (investigative skills assignment, not “idiotic spurious assessment”. Allegedly.)   These wonderful things involve the candidates doing a practical, then in a later lesson, doing a written paper with some connection to it.  “Now why is she moaning about that?”, you are probably thinking, “that sounds reasonable enough”.  Well, in theory it is  – I would take issue with the content in a number of cases, but that’s a relatively minor point.  The devil is in the detail – and the practicalities, as always:-

These things can be done at any time during the school year. Already alarm bells should be ringing – if your friend at a different school has done the same ISA in October that you are now doing in January, then you are probably going to ask them about it, aren’t you? And details are rather prone to appearing on the internet.

But it’s worse than that. The materials – papers, markschemes etc – are not despatched in those nice tamper-proof plastic packets that “real” exam papers come in. They are given in electronic or printed form to teachers as soon as they request them from the exams officer. So can you see where I’m heading with this?  Some teachers may do a “practice” assessment – that happens to bear a stunning resemblance to the real one, with the numbers changed – a week beforehand. Some private tutors actually show their tutees the markscheme.

Of course this shouldn’t happen. And for the record, the teachers at my school most definitely do NOT do this and disapprove of the practice most strongly. But – it does happen. And given the pressure for results from all sides, are you really surprised?  The set-up makes it incredibly easy to cheat, and I have met a number of people who really don’t see any moral objection to doing it.

What makes the cheating even worse, is that the net result is that the grade boundaries are distorted by it. The overall achievement of the people taking the exam is always taken into account when setting the grade boundaries – so the cheats actually make it worse for the others, not just better for themselves.  Here’s an example:-

In one of these papers –  AQA’s AS Biology module 3T – last summer, you needed 40/50 to get an A grade. Then for B it was 37/50, C was 34/50, D was 32/50 and E was 30/50. Yes, that’s right, just 10 raw marks between an A and an E.  And 60% needed for an E???   By comparison, on Module 1 (a written paper), an E grade required 26/60 (43%) and an A grade 45/60 (75%).   On any normal criteria, it’s harder to get high marks on the practical-based modules than the standard written exams – it was certainly like that with the old practical exams.    So schools who do these assessments in the way they are actually meant to, find their candidates actually get quite rubbish marks, and have to do supremely well in the normal written papers to compensate. So – guess what more of them will be tempted to do?

A colleague went to an exam board teacher meeting recently, and said that an Examiner had expressed surprise that many candidates could not answer questions on the end-of-year written paper that they had managed with ease on the ISA. Well, who’d have thought it, eh?

What makes me really fuming is that the exam boards must realise this. They do all sorts of analysis correlating the marks candidates achieve in each paper – they can see which schools or candidates did uncharacteristically well or badly. And yet nothing happens.

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One Response to Assessing practical science

  1. Pingback: Earth calling Exam Boards… | The Accidental Teacher

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