Proposal to end teacher assessment

Girl carries out practical chemistry in school laboratory

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In its formal response to the government's summer consultations on GCSE reforms, the awarding organisation OCR has called for an end to coursework marks counting towards GCSE results. OCR explains that while it fully supports practical work at this level, it shares the concerns of many teachers in how practical science is currently assessed. In short, 'direct' teacher assessments are difficult to manage, open to abuse, and in many cases have a negative impact on the teaching and learning experience of students. Under OCR's proposals, practical work in science would be part of the subject specifications, but the knowledge gained through this kind coursework would be assessed 'indirectly' through the final written exams, as is currently the case for iGCSE science.

Chemical education consultant Andrew Hunt, agrees with OCR on the abolition of coursework marks at GCSE but believes that the key to ensuring interesting and worthwhile practical work at this level comes down to a mixture of assessment methods being used. 'Having coursework assessed solely by external written exams is not enough to ensure high quality practical work is done – you can teach iGCSE without your pupils doing any practical work. This would be a dangerous road to go down,' he says.

Another awarding body, AQA, has also expressed its views in this area. In its formal response, AQA comments that while it strongly supports practical approaches to teaching science, assessment should not be the sole determinant of what is taught in schools. AQA recommends that the practical science element assessed by teachers at GCSE should not contribute 10% of the student's overall mark because the inevitable lack of discrimination would mean that the effective weighting is less than the intended weighting. AQA agrees that teachers should assess practical skills but the outcome should be reported as an endorsement on the final certificate, in a similar way that speaking and listening are in English language.

While the abolition of coursework marks at GCSE is likely to meet with the approval of many teachers, others, including politicians, may need a bit more convincing. A review of how practical work is currently assessed by the three main awarding organisations in England commissioned by the Gatsby foundation found that direct assessment of practical skills is used more extensively in some countries that score more highly in the international PISA studies, such as China and Finland, than in England. But perhaps of more significance, the report found a lack of clarity among the awarding bodies as to what these [practical] skills are and how they might effectively be validly assessed.

It should come as some relief to all those involved in the development of new GCSEs that an extended timetable for GCSE reform has been agreed – new GCSEs in English and mathematics are expected to be ready for first teaching in 2015, while the remainder, including GCSE science qualifications, is now expected for first teaching in September 2016.