Ed Walsh

Will the Controlled Assessment be the make or break of the new GCSE science specifications?

At the time of writing, all the Edexcel specs, all the AQA specs and half of the WJEC specs have been accredited; it is hard to believe that the others are far behind. Which is the first part that busy subject leaders will turn to, or ask about, at awarding body briefings? If I was laying odds on one part I’d go for the Controlled Assessment as one that will cause some hard thinking. It’s an open secret that getting this right has been an important aspect of the new courses being approved.

Many of the features are already known about, of course. The contexts are selected by the awarding body and change every year; assessments are going to be marked by teachers and moderated by awarding bodies. Much thought will be devoted to sorting out the logistics. Actually, that’s not all that thought should be devoted to.

One of the things that struck me, looking at the samples from the approved specs, is the importance of pupils planning investigations themselves. To pick up a good number of marks they have to be able to devise a plan which will identify variables, select equipment, choose the range and number of measurements and manage risk. These are skills that need practising, and not just the week before. Lots of practical work in schools starts after the planning stage: the equipment is lined up, the safety briefing issued and the procedure explained. Sometimes this is inevitable but, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s not. Investigative work doesn’t start with a requisition sheet but with a question.

Secondly, the research and the data gathering in a Controlled Assessment is “low control” – pupils can work in groups and discuss things (hey, a bit like scientists do) when they’re doing research and gathering data. In other words, they’ll do better if their group work skills are better. Pupils may be happy being in groups, but the groups need to function effectively to achieve quality outcomes; that needs practice too.

Thirdly, however, the Controlled Assessments retain one of the most cherished aspects of science education; pupils should have the experience of working with real, raw, data. Real data has the habit of being untidy and not always coming up with what you expected. Pupils need the confidence of working with data and questioning it. That needs practice, too.

The most important thing about Controlled Assessments may well turn out to be not what goes on in the activity itself but what happens weeks, months or even years beforehand.

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