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Fundamental challenge of new GCSE speaking assessment

It won't be long before we see what the awarding bodies have in mind for the latest version of GCSE speaking test. As always, the fundamental challenge will be to produce an assessment which challenges the most able and supports the least.

The most recent version of oral assessment, the controlled assessment regime, has leaned towards helping the less confident linguist. By allowing students to set answers to memory, we end up with nearly every student being able to say something worthwhile. Weaker students achieve something. At the same time, the most competent linguists still get the chance to excel by producing longer and more linguistically complex responses.

Previous versions of GCSE speaking tests have attempted to achieve the same balancing act by allowing part of the test to be a memorised talk of at least one minute. The earliest version of GCSE speaking, back in 1987-8, as I recall it, leaned too much towards spontaneity for weaker pupils.

The current controlled assessment regime has been rightly criticised for going too far down the road of rote learning at the expense of spontaneity (even though it still allows the best students to shine). Therefore we can expect the new assessment to value unrehearsed responses more highly.

There are various ways to do this: you can get students to speak about pictures, do role plays and answer (relatively) unpredictable conversation questions, for example. The danger is, of course, that we produce an assessment which does not allow for enough pre-learning. I recall very clearly the GCSE speaking tests I used to mark for AQA in the 1990s. Too many candidates were unable to say very much at all. Minutes of silence or the odd uttered word were easy to assess, but you had to question whether the experience was worthwhile for everyone concerned.

Thankfully the DfE accepted the need for tiering in the new exams, but the the challenge remains. Even in an era when so many less able students no longer do MFL GCSE, can the exam boards produce a test which allows for both sufficient spontaneity and advance rehearsal? We should examine specimen tests with this strongly in mind.


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