Science Exams Don't Test Science

SATs exams are routinely used by many schools as standardised questions for class use and homework. After setting the school mandated homeworks for 13-year-olds, containing nothing but past exam questions, for their science homework, I have often been disappointed with the supplied marking schemes. The questions themselves are intended as summative test items to sample pupils' knowledge based on the 3-year long curriculum. What I needed for proper teaching was formative tasks based on what I had intended them to learn.

But issue the homeworks I did. And then the marking became a problem, not because is was onerous (there are few tasks that need less thought than marking test questions to a detailed mark scheme) but because the required answers were often incorrect or incomplete. Questions are written to correspond to specific curriculum learning targets, not in itself a problem, but when those targets are simplistic or read naively by the exam authors then science can go out of the window. Weak pupils gain credit for wrong answers because the question was not specific enough, and bright pupils lose marks because their perceptive answers went beyond the curriculum statements. The examiners often mistake a list of examples in the statements as being the limit of possible answers: for example, contributions to global warming may include the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning (obviously), but not the energy released from the same processes (a smaller, but real, contribution).

Similar problems have been caused by the current fashion for schools to purchase the exam boards' authorised textbooks, even though they are written to the test and encourage surface learning without depth. The worst problem by far for these texts, though, is the large number of errors in them and subsequent teacher responses. The errors are understandable given the short timescale for major changes imposed on the boards by the controlling authority, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). However, most colleagues I have discussed this with are unconcerned, with the majority seemingly happy to go with the flow. I have even been told by one head of department that we ought to teach what was in the book even if it was wrong. The reasons? Whatever was in the book will be marked as correct in any exam since the book was authorised by the exam board, and it is better to avoid causing confusion in the pupils!

The whole rationale for education has been subverted by the focus on exam marks. Exam marks are more important to students than knowledge. Subjects and exam boards are chosen on the basis of how lax their marking is to improve the students' chances and any attempt at rigour is seen as undermining the school's purpose.

The Sunday Telegraph has obtained documents from the QCA under the Freedom of Information Act:

Internal documents show that concerns raised by experts about accepting wrong answers in the test, taken by thousands of 14-year-olds in May, were overruled by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

In a question which asked what organs a riding hat protects, the answer "skull" was accepted as correct - even though the skull is not an organ. Examiners were also told to award a mark to "ears" despite a graphic which accompanied the question clearly showing the riders ears outside the hat.

In another question, which asks pupils to describe how chalk changes when shaken in a container with granite, the word "weathered" was accepted as correct, against the advice of experts who told QCA that is was "completely incorrect".

QCA has known of the problems, but thought that correcting its exams would reduce the grade statistics for that year. Instead, teachers can continue to teach to the test , safe in the knowledge that a real examination of their charges' understanding will not be made until they get to university.

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Ofsted: Maths Exam Progress Is Not Evidence for Better Education

In their report, Mathematics: Understanding the score, Ofsted bemoans the amount of teaching to the test that goes on. It seems that, after many years of squeezing ever increasing exam grades out of children, they have finally seen some of the damage they have caused.

Their press release says that many schools...
...are not teaching mathematics well enough because they place too much emphasis on routine exercises and on ‘teaching to the test’. While this style of teaching prepares pupils to pass examinations, and gain necessary qualifications, it is less effective in promoting the required understanding to apply mathematics to new situations, solve problems and communicate solutions.
So, after years of forcing school results to climb improbably, under the threat that the satisfactory is not good enough mantra will blight their reports, are Ofsted going to back off from damning teachers who are devoted enough to their charges to ignore the unprofessional pressure from managers and HM Inspectors?

Like hell they will!

Managers will still be sweating over a tenth of a percentage point drop in the A* to C figure and Heads of Department will still be coercing teachers to keep marking and returning the coursework until it is right. Pupils revealed as just below the threshold grade D or level 5 from the relentless practising past-paper will still be enrolled on Ofsted endorsed Booster Sessions whether they need this additional support or not while needy students in lower grade bands are left to flounder.

Leopards don't so easily change their spots. This report will be, however, another excuse for inspectors and politicians to lean on teachers all the more.

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Open Oxford to Low Achievers, Says NUS

Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students President, says in The Guardian education blog of universities that:
There is still a demographic gulf between the richest and poorest institutions; until access to Britain's "top" institutions becomes a reality, a market can only act as a counter to the pursuit of social justice. A sector that should be an engine room for greater equality instead acts to reinforce inequality of opportunity and outcome.
but he has missed one of the main social effects of mass education.
Educated populations reduce inequality by being able to hold governments and bureaucracies to account, as despots around the world know well. Inequality is not served by coercing universities to recruit poorly educated students who have been let down by their families, communities or schools, or by their own unwillingness to take the opportunities on offer to them.
Students who have been unsuccessful at school are likely to be unsuccessful in university degree courses. The most liberal university entry requirements produce institutions with the highest drop-out rates, wasting a year or two of a young person's critical career-forming years: the best of intentions can not easily overcome the lack of academic preparation.
Inequality in the country as a whole will be helped by having a critical mass of the population having a sufficient level of education to challenge the status quo. The most disadvantaged will themselves benefit from the best students being educated to the greatest level. We all need an elite in this country: who wants everything important run by the mediocre?

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