The focus was on assessing the school sciences in England to help promote an authentic experience for learners. As with many of the more technical issues in education the saying “the devil is in the detail” applies equally to this area.
There were many thoughtful contributions at the conference from the podium and in workshops, with many delegates having accumulated years of experience in assessment, and more specifically in the school sciences.
It is important to make the distinction ‘school’ sciences. Despite many innovations that take place in parts of the education system, the fact is that teaching in schools will always be different. This can be ascribed to a range of factors including not least the younger age of the students, the relative subject/pedagogical expertise of the teachers, the funding/infrastructure limitations and accountability pressures that exist at this phase.
So what can conclusions did the conference come to? You can see some of the live comments and reactions here. Below are some further points from me to mull over:
- The Department for Education (DfE) speaker reiterated the intention of ministers to restrict the amount of teacher assessment at GCSE level to the minimum. We are still awaiting a report from Ofqual, the qualifications regulator in England, about controlled assessment, which was introduced to counteract any temptation on the part of students or teachers to exploit unfairly coursework elements of GCSE. Ironically this seems to have failed for GCSE English last year according to DfE, Ofqual and the High Court, though many in the schools system still feel they suffered an injustice in the setting of ‘tougher’ grades.
- There was a fascinating presentation by University of York researchers on the use of ‘backward design’ to help produced formative assessments in English school science that actually reflect learning intentions. I am intrigued to know how much this differs from the ‘Assessing Pupils’ Progress’ (APP) programme that was introduced by the previous Government and was evaluated for science in this NFER report. It seems that teachers were not completely enthusiastic about the details of the approach, often a problem with large rollouts of what are originally good ideas. Lessons need to be learned from this.
- This leads me to the key issue with assessment in science and other subjects. To have real value it needs to inform teaching and learning in a developmental feedback process. But students and teachers may be put under pressure by themselves or others to ‘get through the test’, for understandable reasons. This can negate real value, especially for those students who require most the development aspects of learning.
- Perhaps we need to accept that in a system of universal examinations, which societies require for the certification of competences, the priority is to be pragmatic about the type and level of expected educational outcome required from everyone. School accountability systems are finally moving more in this direction and there is a growing interest in the ‘softer’ attributes required by future employees, such as the ability to analyse, team work and project manage. This is partly why the History teaching community in England is currently waging a war against a proposed knowledge-based curriculum which may, if we are not very careful, hinder the development of the broader qualities that employers are looking for.