In December Ofqual confirmed that all GCSE science courses would move to all external assessment units being taken at the end of the course; this will take effect for courses being completed in 2014 onwards. (This means that next year’s Year 10 students could use modular assessment for their Year 10 course if it was ‘cashed in’ in June 2013, but terminal assessment for their Year 11 course).
Reactions to this are mixed. On the one hand, jaded subject leaders may be relieved that the logistical nightmare of organising module tests will be a thing of the past. Their reaction will probably be shared by other staff affected by the disruption they bring, in some cases compounded by the addition of re-sits. On the other hand, some schools know that a key driver in improving outcomes has been intervention triggered by module test scores. Watching the external assessment data of students close to a grade threshold constitutes effective tracking.
So what might we make of this in terms of pedagogical principles?
One of the ways in which teaching and learning has improved over the last few years has been the use of ‘Assessment for Learning’ and a key principle of this has been providing learners with feedback. A module test score of an E given to someone capable of getting a C is pretty powerful. It’s not a ‘mock’; it’s the real thing and for some students it’s both a wake-up call and an opportunity to then show what they can do. Some schools have made very good use of this and some students have benefitted as a result.
However, it can be argued that modular assessment is the enemy of progression. If you take a key idea like energy, it should develop in pupils’ understanding throughout their science education. Having ‘done the test’ in that topic runs the risk of the teacher then backing off. One of the higher order skills in science is the ability to draw upon ideas from different aspects of science and apply them to an issue. Well designed synoptic papers could do this better than module tests.
Having said that, it seems likely that the terminal exams, at least in the short term, will simply be the module tests taken hard on the heels of each other. Triple scientists will certainly feel well examined at the end of their course. This is unsurprising, of course, given the short timescale of the change. Furthermore it is likely that quite a few students (and their teachers) will like the specific attribution of certain topics to certain papers. However, this may not be a long lived feature. The review of the National Curriculum may have implications for GCSEs when it takes effect and could precipitate a redrafting of specifications. Awarding organisations may then use this as an opportunity to combine external assessments into fewer larger papers; indeed, having a synoptic element would be a logical corollary of the ending of modular assessment.
However, one thing is clear. The skills that a teacher needs to manage an end assessed course will be at a premium. Periodically revisiting topics during a course, tracking progress using internal assessment and the astute identification of key aspects to revise will become even more important. High quality revision lessons need to bring the whole subject together. The most effective teachers will be not only the ones who can make new ideas exciting and engaging but can bring the whole course together at the end.