Uncontrolled Assessments

Despite the title, a lot of this also relates to AS and A2 – Physics, at least. (They don’t trust me with squishy stuff or cooking.) It seemed a waste to spend time answering the call for evidence from Ofqual without blogging it too. Especially because it made me realise how messed up the whole ISA situation is. Maybe it’s much better in OCR and Edexcel; ‘my’ kids do AQA.

I’m not going through all my answers, just those that seemed particularly relevant, complimentary or critical. I’ll start off, because I’m a teacher, with the comment that when the question below is on an official Ofqual document, it seems odd that Gove wants students to lose marks for poor grammar:

“Please explain you answer.”

Weaknesses

There is no way to assess hands-on practical ability by the current method – the students are specifically told that their results are irrelevant. The students’ problem-solving abilities are tested by the practical itself, but this is not measured in any way.

In my opinion, there is very little difference, if any, to previous versions of controlled assessment – the results are no more ‘authentic’ than before. Teachers are still able to see the question papers in advance, and for AQA, section 1 is always effectively identical to the sample paper – which we can share, with the markscheme, with students. Unsurprisingly students end up rote-learning their answers. To be manageable in a real classroom all students end up doing a similar practical anyway, despite claims they would have more freedom. The ‘research’ section is useless, and students have frequently shown that the only helpful result when searching for a context is the teacher notes supplied by AQA. This means that the variety in support – which an AQA advisor agreed was ‘against the spirit but still allowed’ – shows that teacher efforts are still a big issue.

Workload/Management

The type of task has been badly managed by AQA, and is longwinded. Students must:

  1. research a hypothesis
  2. design an experiment and results table
  3. complete an exam paper on the design process
  4. complete the practical (modified if necessary)
  5. produce a graph or chart of results
  6. complete a second exam paper on their analysis.

Completing this process, at least for the first time, takes a minimum of 7 lessons in school (researchx2, paper1, practicalx2, graph, paper2) and probably more for each ISA. Students missing lessons due to illness or other commitments obviously makes the process more complex, a burden that inevitably falls on the teacher. In our timetable, students spend at least three weeks on one investigation, often only spending 1-2 hours on practical work. This is not sustainable.

It takes a while and there is a huge amount of separate pages they have to be provided with, especially for the final paper (their research notes, their results and graph, a group set of results, two pages of case studies). Each section must be marked BY THE TEACHERS and kept securely, then moderated.

The specific tasks set show that AQA have not tested out the likely experiments, nor checked online for research sources that are reasonably pitched for GCSE students. The results are frequently nonsensical with the equipment available in a school lab, meaning no useful pattern for the students to discuss. The practical tasks are very straightforward, about a Year7 level.

The marking of the work is a long process and standardisation is difficult. I would conservatively estimate each ISA takes at least 20 minutes per student (paper 1, table, graph, paper 2). For a class of 30 this is ten hours of marking for each ISA – and they are expected to complete at least two per year. We have currently been trying to complete them for year 9 and 10 classes. This means up to thirty hours of marking per colleague.

Conclusion

The tasks are badly designed and not fit for purpose – the skills could be assessed more effectively and more uniformly. It feels like the tasks have been tweaked and changed so many times that they are effectively designed to fail at their claimed purpose.

The workload is unmanageable in my subject. Exam boards would, I suspect, have spent a lot more time thinking about this if they were responsible for paying those marking it. I don’t know how the cost of sitting the module has changed compared to externally marked ones, but of course schools don’t have to pay overtime either. This means less time to prepare lessons and teach the rest of our classes. Several exams per ISA also makes it very difficult in terms of SEN entitlement, with extended time and TA support being difficult to schedule with a whole year group doing assessments in a range of subjects, taking up more and more time.

I know colleagues who have missed work due to finishing marking, or because of being ill after ridiculously long hours to meet deadlines.

It could be done so much better. Students gain very little in the way of real practical skills, and the majority of the questions in the exam are about things that could be in regular exams unrelated to the ‘experiments’ they have done.

Students are certainly stretched, in that some questions are so obscure – or the markscheme so erratic – that only a few achieve the highest marks. In some cases the only way a student could write an answer that gains all the available marks is if they had been coached by their teacher. They struggle to apply what they have learned outside of the ISA environment, because it is so unlike the practicals and investigations they do at other times.

Scientific content is at a low level in most cases, but the maths demand can be quite high. This penalises students who are capable of explaining trends and patterns but struggle with numbers.

 Constructive Feedback

Of course, as a teacher I feel the need to suggest a way to improve. I think it’s worthwhile that the ISA starts with a research task, but it needs to be standardised. How about a different structure:

  1. Produce a booklet of sources, some more useful than others, that students use to plan a practical in exam conditions.
  2. All students nationally do the same thing, from the same materials.
  3. A standard practical with a paper, using standardised experiment, like the old A-level set-up.

These exams could be sealed beforehand then externally marked, anonymously, removing at a stroke many of the major issues with internally-marked work. Several samples would need to be produced, but this would avoid the demand for more and more assessed pieces – time consuming for students and staff – in the hope of incremental improvements. The two main criticisms of the current system – that it fails to assess the skills fairly for all candidates, and that it takes too much time – are removed at a stroke.

Two other posts worth reading on this are by @hrogerson on OCR-B and by @DrRachael, also on AQA.

Maybe you have other suggestions?

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Jobs For The Summer

New planner? Check. New timetable? Check. New class lists? Well, depends on how well organised your school is. Pile of coursework to mark? Probably. Schemes of work to tweak ready for September? Probably.

Now think carefully about this one. Have you got the important jobs sorted out?

Yes, I know those jobs are important. Like you, I spend a day during the summer gettting into my September mindset; filling in my first fortnight’s timetable, making sure I’ve identified top end and struggling students, rearranging seating plans. This year life will be much easier as I’ve evolved my electronic markbook (Excel, if you care) into something more fit for purpose. Mainly by eliminating the mistakes I made this year. But there are things that are more important, parts of the bigger picture which you should be thinking about too.

Assuming you know what you’re teaching in the new term, could you find the resources and links for one outstanding lesson for each group in that first fortnight? Use some of your gained time in these last few days to try out a new practical. Save the video files to your ‘September’ folder. Turn the questions into a gameshow format. It doesn’t matter what – just be ready to enjoy that moment when a new class is in the palm of your hand, hanging on your every word.

Do you have your summer reading ready? Each year I invest in a couple of interesting-looking education books – this is as well as the popular science I consume on a more regular basis. Right now I’ve got Better Learning Through Structured Teaching by Fisher and Frey, bought through the Book Barge; I’d like to see about applying the GRR model to practical skills in my lab. I’ve also downloaded the Perfect Ofsted English Lesson to my Android, and plan to blog about my reflections on David’s ideas and how they relate to Science lessons. Alternatively, you might like to put a few relevant research papers to one side. Or does your school have a professional development bookshelf? If not, why not?

Of course, a great way to find things to reflect on is to do something teaching-related. I’m attending an AQA stakeholder meeting in July and the #YorkTU in late August. Between them – the arguments at the first and the presentations at the second – I’m sure I will find new things to mess around with. Like the books, this sort of thing costs money. Think of it as investing in your own development, more to add to your CV as well as helping you do your current job better.

Have you identified your areas for development for the next year? How well these match up to your official performance targets will depend on your setting, but it would be good to choose things that you want to change. Pair up with a colleague and agree that you’ll informally observe each other, swap ideas and prompt each other during thr rough patches. Maybe you want to work on questioning techniques, or find ways to improve the quality of your feedback to students without tripling your workload. Write a list in next year’s planner and spend some time coming up with approaches. Change/Observe/Reflect can be the start of an action research cycle if you want to think of it that way.

What’s wasted time over the past year? What problem do you wish you could solve? For me it’s coming up with good starters; the ideas are interesting and get kids engaged, but there’s no enough variety of method. So my project is to produce three ‘starter schemes’ in powerpoint. This doesn’t mean all whiteboard activities, but that the instructions or prompts will be there ready for me and my students. I want to get a few ready for each topic now, and by the end of the year I’ll have varied, challenging, interesting activities organised into KS3 Biology, Chemistry and Physics. My plan is to put them on Google Docs too, perhaps so online colleagues can help put them together. (Yes, I’m lazy.)

It’s always really tempting to take time off completely. Time with kids, family holidays, a respite from marking all mean that it’s understandable. But like we tell the kids, a small amount of preparation can go a long way. I don’t expect to manage all the things on my ‘to do’ list. But anything I do manage will make my job better in September, and make me better at my job.

Not bad for a holiday.

Fears, Rules, Words, Questions

A quick lesson description here; I’ve been far too focused on political stuff recently. I thought I’d blogged this before, but apparently not. (And while I’m reviewing – 120 posts. Yeah, really.)

Anyway. It’s the time of year, after summative exams for our KS3 classes, that we teach Reproduction to year 7.

Stop giggling at the back there!

This is my approach to starting off what can be a challenging topic. It comes with no guarantee, and you need to be pretty confident – especially with the ‘Words’ section. Of course, you can adapt or use parts of it, and probably already do. I’ve found that the combination works pretty well, so far at least. I assure them before we start that there will be no practical work during the topic.

Fears

“What might make a student nervous about this topic?” I ask. I am careful not to ask why they are scared. They discuss it, then I write their ideas up on the board, rewording as needed, and ask the class to write the bullet points down. There are no solutions, yet. This is to identify potential problems, and it’s fairly easy to predict what will show up. “People laughing at me/what I know/what I don’t know/what I say” is usually near the top of the list. “Being taught with boys/girls” is another. It’s usually straightforward to adapt one of the comments to be “People making it personal” or something similar.

Rules

I remind the students of the rules we have agreed and followed all year. We talk about how applying these will solve some of the problems, but that it’s worth having specific Dos and Don’ts for the topic. Your students probably did something similar in PSHE. After a few minutes discussion time, we draft some fresh rules, ticking off the fears as we go. It’s easy to include something about the language we will use – sometimes I do the Words exercise below first. Addressing the ‘personal comments/questions’ fear is a good chance to remind students of trusted adults, in and out of school, who are good people to turn to for individual worries. I emphasize that what we do in Science will be Biology, rather than the ‘social’ side of reproduction. Again, students write the rules down. It’s then time to put away folders.

Words

I write ‘F***’ on the board, with asterisks, and explain over the gasps and giggles that we all know which word this is. I then point out that all kinds of words can be used in all kinds of situations that link to this topic, and invite them to suggest them. Anything. No holds barred. Everything gets written on the board. Keep a straight face – I raise an eyebrow over the more obscure or silly ones, but have so far managed not to laugh or let my horror show. (I mean, they’re eleven. You’ll be surprised.) If needed I remind them that we’re considering words used by people of all ages, and prompt them to think about a primary school child’s language.

I then circle the ‘polite’ words and explain that we can consider these as ‘classroom English’. These are scientific language, so no need to blush or be embarrassed by the word (even if the body part would be shocking). These aren’t used as insults or swear words, so less mature students won’t get distracted from learning. I also point out how odd it is that some body parts owned by half the human race are used as insults.

Important: clean the board very thoroughly. 🙂

Questions

I give each student a piece of paper and ask them to spread out, as if doing a test. This is their chance to ask a question about the topic. It might be something they’ve always wondered about, or something they’ve heard in the playground, or anything. Everyone has to write something, even if it’s a line from a song or a quote from a film. This means that nobody will know who’s asked a question at all, let alone who asked which one. As they write I explain that I won’t answer them now, but make sure that where needed I’ll address the issue while teaching the topic. Many of them, of course, will not write a question. Those that do, ask questions that probably would have been answered anyway. But it means they feel involved. And as I collect them from the box they’ve been put into, I assure them that we’ll repeat this exercise at the end of the topic.

Comments?

Obviously this is only one way to start a topic which is guaranteed to get some giggles. I’d be interested in other approaches, obviously. And I’ll try to make sure a few more posts are pedagogy-relevant before I get overwhelmed with something political again!

Speaking of which, I’m seeking volunteers who would like to contribute thoughts, comments, criticisms on Science controlled assessments at GCSE. I’m going to blog my thoughts in a little while, inspired by the current call for evidence from Ofqual, but I’ve no experience with boards other than AQA. It’ll either be one epic post or more likely a series, one for each board. So if you’re interested in a guest post (or just a link to your blog!) please get in touch, by email or twitter.