Scientists attack A-levels that will ignore lab work and ask Ofqual to reconsider

According to the Times, plans to stop practical experiments from counting towards A-level science grades have triggered a revolt among senior academics and industry leaders…

In a letter to The Times today scientists, engineers and business leaders say that the move will produce a generation of scientists unable to apply their knowledge in laboratories or fieldwork. They appeal for support to force the exam regulator to reverse the decision.

Under the proposals, A-level students will no longer be required to conduct experiments or practical assignments that contribute towards final grades in biology, chemistry and physics. Currently these contribute between 20 and 30 per cent of the mark in each.

From 2015, Ofqual plans to award grades solely on performance in final written exams. Each candidate’s certificate will include a summary from their teacher on their practical skills…

When the proposals were unveiled in October, Ofqual said science teachers often awarded A-level students inflated marks for practical work. While practical units are meant to involve unseen tasks, Ofqual said details often leaked out as pupils were rarely able to perform them at the same time. It added that teachers often restricted teaching of practical science to a narrow range of skills likely to come up in assignments.

Today’s letter rejects Ofqual’s claim that the change will encourage schools to teach a wider range of practical skills. Signatories include Sir John Holman, Emeritus Professor at the University of York and adviser on science education to the previous Government, Professor Dame Athene Donald, head of the Royal Society’s education committee, and Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association…

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said yesterday: “We are proposing that the outcomes of the practical assessment should be reported on the certificate but not contribute to the overall grade. This will in fact show more detailed information about the students’ practical abilities than the current arrangements.”…

More at:  Scientists attack A-levels that will ignore lab work (subscription required)

Are the authors of this letter right? Should practical work count towards grades in science A levels? Please let us know in the comments, on twitter and by taking part in our poll…

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  1. 5N_Afzal

    The arguments are all flawed. If they think teachers award inflated grades, what’s to stop them writing inflated evaluations? If they think teachers concentrate on limited practical skills then knowing students won’t be tested why would they “waste” time in teaching and getting students to do a wide variety of experiments?

  2. amusedpenguin

    SchoolsImprove In a word. Yes!!! Ofqual are wrong. Just because assessed pracs are hard to admin isn’t a reason to avoid altogether

  3. DexNott

    SchoolsImprove yes wrong.practical at heart. Our chemi Alevel investigation =3weeks research a gd piece of student work. Mimics a scientist

  4. DexNott

    SchoolsImprove of qual need to understand students often do well because they get to b v good at practical work. Motivating!

  5. Mktadvice4schls

    DexNott SchoolsImprove trouble is that I have no faith in marks for prac work – have seen horrible levels of cheating

  6. Mktadvice4schls

    DexNott SchoolsImprove AS/A2 – kids given ansers to learn! Look at some schls performance on ISAs vs written papers!

  7. drleatongray

    Educ_Reform Are they deliberately scuppering the potential for biotech industry growth in this country or is this an oversight?

  8. DexNott

    Mktadvice4schls SchoolsImprove think that is solution most of a prac examined in written ex: plan analyse conclude even evaluate to extent

  9. Mktadvice4schls

    DexNott SchoolsImprove would like that. But there’s too much pressure on teachers to trust anything outside formal exams sadly

  10. Mktadvice4schls

    DexNott could get external assessors in but would be very expensive. Then again at uni my prac work wasn’t assessed just checked.

  11. DexNott

    Mktadvice4schls yes understood- just worried if blown out completely. It’s been in examinations forever one way or another. Other subj too

  12. Mktadvice4schls

    DexNott one issue is need to upgrade prac experience as well. V. Lucky to access RSC_Comms #spectroscopyinasuitcase for example.

  13. DexNott

    Mktadvice4schls RSC_Comms agree RasC in chemi others in other sci need to take lead keep on pressure. My students love practicals

  14. Educ_Reform

    drleatongray Suspect the DfE agenda is more generalised. But why do they insist on marginalising subjects that are not strictly academic?

  15. hecharden

    SchoolsImprove Experiment is intrinsic to scientific research as by definition if you are to discover something new you can’t look it up!

  16. CromwellConsult

    SchoolsImprove Ofqual does not give any scientifically valid reasons. If teaching-to-the-test is a problem, then we need to end all exams.

  17. Educ_Reform

    drleatongray In that it is hands-on and therefore no longer seen as cerebral. That is likely to be the simplistic mindset operating.

  18. Educ_Reform

    drleatongray Oh, an that it is less easy to examine/measure – too much DfE suspicion of cheating or other forms of malpractice.

  19. DHarvey164

    SchoolsImprove practical units carry less weightng.
    Most recent changes driven by tales of ‘malpractice’ not solid educ theory.

  20. amirshah316

    SchoolsImprove Science teaching without lab work and practicals is void as learners need to learn through doing and observing.

  21. Andrew_1910

    Just how do these dimwits think scientists and engineers did anything without labs, workshops and hands-on travail? “Ooh I think I’ll tunnel Crossrail under London by the power of thought. Let me reason with London clay, UXBs and burial pits so they get out of the way.” Yeah that’ll work.

  22. drleatongray

    Educ_Reform Yes, like opera and concert pianists and building bridges. By those measures none of these things are cerebral.

  23. @amusedpenguin SchoolsImprove Why not make it easier and keep them? There are different assessment methods. We use a criteria matching method linked to exams such that it can’t significantly distort the grade but is mandatory to prove competence. Used in 3 GCSE alternatives accepted by the DfE for headline points. If A levels are not fit for purpose do alternatives that are.

  24. Greyling

    Practical skills are very different from theory skills and need to be encouraged properly and assessed. The Problems that Ofqual are reacting to are mainly due to the over inflation of assessed work and the significant amount of cheating that is inherant within a system of assessment. The problem of providing sufficiently rigorous assessments to very large A level departments of 20 classes in teaching time that is being cut significantly is becoming increasingly difficult. teaching practical work properly requires time as a resource.

  25. 5N_Afzal Exactly. At TLM we have qualifications agreed with the DfE for school league tables (I’m considering doing science next as I was a science teacher 😉 ) The way we get round the burden on practical is to have a component of the assessment that is competency based for practical work. It counts and indeed we won’t allow anyone to do the exam without it but it has a fixed contribution towards the exam. Competency based assessment reform is at the heart of vocational qualifications across the whole of Europe not just parochial little England. Teachers match observed student competency to criteria and use day to day evidence to support it. We are not grading this work so it is relatively simple process low in bureaucracy. If the student completes the work meeting all the criteria they gain 30 marks. We thus ensure there is a real reason to do it and the teacher can decide when competency is secure. Then we give them an exam with progressively more difficult questions. No-one can pass the course just on the practical but neither can they avoid it. We can demonstrate that a relatively short exam can produce the same differentiation as longer more expensive ones. Thus we save money in examining costs as well as teacher time. The whole thing is backed by a cloud based evidence management system so nothing needs to be on paper and it lends itself to formative assessment at no extra cost. Of course we are not a GCSE or A level awarding organisation so this is Vocational equivalents only at the moment but it demonstrates proof of concept. 

    Its horses for courses. Use methods that lend themselves to practical work and different methods for grading academic knowledge and understanding. Perhaps not perfect but within the constraints of the system a way to keep good coursework practice and not worry so much about internal assessment causing abberration in grading.

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