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A reflection on controlled assessments

Well, it's nearly the end of the first classes going through the new controlled assessments for GCSE and my thoughts on this are thus:

Overall, not too painful for teachers or students. We have given (in nearly all cases) our pupils three goes at speaking assessments, after initially planning for four. The first we did at the end of Y10 during gained time when we were able to get cover. The second oral CA was during the December mocks in Y11 and the last one is coming up in very early May, just before the deadline. Again we have managed to secure cover for them. We chose tried and tested topics: school, food and healthy eating, holidays and free time (depending on the class). We tried to choose topics which fitted in chronologically with our existing scheme. I couldn't see the point in going for more original topics. My feeling was that we can do more creative things outside the assessment system and that the safe topics would score good marks.

Marking the spoken CAs has been time-consuming, especially in view of the amount of moderation needed to get the marking right. We have had three lengthy twilight sessions listening to sound files and tweaking marks. Those sessions can be amusing and not at all dull, but they take time. We have learned that it takes a while to mark accurately. We were too fierce to start with. We found it useful, as experienced teachers, to consider roughly what grade we thought a tests merited. We have a good idea of what  C grade sounds like and what and A* sounds like. This influenced us to some extent when interpreting the mark scheme. Overall, we found it easy enough to use the mark scheme.

I still feel that the new format involves too much learning by heart, but the results produced by the AQA's mark scheme seem about right and pupils have prepared well for the tests on the whole. The best students have excellent memories so perform well, the less able dry up more and get the mark they deserve. Those who do not prepare thoroughly also get what they deserve. Some students got nervous, but I had the feeling that there were fewer nerves than with the old "one off" test.

As for the written assessments, we have done just two timed essays, one on free time and one on fitness and health. We decided not to feed back marks to students, but to just inform them if we thought their mark was below expectation. In these cases students have been happy to have a second go. A few have actually requested it. We did these essays in the spring term of Y11. We did not wish to clutter up the Y10 scheme of work with endless assessments. This has worked fine and I cannot see us changing next time. It also meant that we did not allow spoken CAs and written CAs to overlap. Spanish and German happily worked around the French, but essentially followed the same format, with similar topics.

We have learned that preparation is best done at home after a teaching sequence of about three weeks. Preparation in class is fraught with difficulties: lack of concentration, doubts about what information can be shared and the vexed issue of not being allowed to take drafts home.We hand out bullet points a week before the CA and treat it as an extended homework.

The only change in our practice I can envisage at this moment would be not to leave the final spoken CA quite so late, just before the deadline for sending in marks.

The serious issue with all this, in my view, is the one of assessment reliability. We cannot control what help is given at home, we cannot stop students using Google Translate and the system allows teachers to bend the rules too easily. With regard to re-sits, for example, the fact that you can create a new task by changing just one bullet point means, effectively, that the students can write the same essay again. (Bear in mind that the instructions say "you may include" ahead of the bullet points.) I daresay most teachers are scrupulously fair about the conduct of assessments, but the system almost invites malpractice and therefore fails the primary test of an assessment system: reliability.

For that reason alone, I would favour a return to an examination.

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