Teaching to the test is not something we should strive for, says Kristy Turner

Advanced assessment shutterstock 276047690 300tb[1]

Source: © Shutterstock

The secondary science community is in a bit of a flap. The specifications for the new GCSEs have not yet been approved. There are drafts available, but many schools have already begun teaching GCSE courses to their Year 9 students while in the dark about what the specs will hold.

I can’t help but think the hysteria is getting a little out of control. In the uncertainty about the future of our assessments we have lost sight of what we’re actually teaching. I teach chemistry, not AQA iGCSE Level 1/2 certificate chemistry, although that’s what it will say on the exam papers. 

In our progress driven, terminal assessment model we have started to put the cart before the horse – the assessment before the science.

Seriously, there’s a lot we can rely on – some topics that will always be present in the syllabus. It is pretty much guaranteed that the topics of atomic structure, structure and bonding and chemical calculations will be included in the exam specification. And the assessment of these topics has changed little during the period that GCSEs have existed and even from the previous O-level. Those topics are more than enough to fill up a Year 9 chemistry syllabus. 

And, in case those are lacking in practical work, there are others that will be included. Group 1 and group 7; acids and bases; neutralisation and salt formation; and the reactivity series in some form or other. 

Examination fixation

But there’s something deeper here. I think much of what we dress up as ‘exam technique’ is actually just papering over poor understanding of the science. 

The panic with which we address preparation for assessments is passed onto the students we teach. When they find themselves struggling they resort to shortcuts, learning stock phrases from mark schemes. 

This focus on the assessment contributes to further problems at A-level and beyond. A common concern among my higher education colleagues is the genuine distress felt by undergraduates when they find there are no mark schemes to use in preparing for their exams. A recent study has shown that the UK is top of the class for teaching to the test. This shouldn't be something we strive for.

Teach chemistry, and teach chemistry well. Focus on the fundamentals of the subject and any refining can be done nearer to the assessment. No Year 9 pupil needs drilling in correct phrasing when they have an insecure grasp of the basics. 

I understand the anxiety about results and the potential consequences, but these results are due in 2018. There is still plenty of time. The hamster wheel of assessment reform will continue, but the fundamentals of chemistry will stay the same.

Kristy is a teacher and teacher fellow, splitting her time between Bolton School Boys’ Division and the University of Manchester