Memorandum submitted by Institute of Physics (IOP)

 

1. The Institute recognises that assessment serves a number of purposes, including checking the performance of individual students and their schools as well as informing the teaching and learning process. However, at present, assessment seems to be doing rather more than this and has become the driver of education rather than the check on learning.

 

2. A key issue reported by teachers is that the current context in schools - accountability through exam results, over-assessment, lack of time, and the compartmentalisation of the curriculum - has led to a situation where teachers teach for exam results rather than for learning. This need not be an issue if the assessment tools were better matched to the intended learning outcomes of the curriculum.

 

3. We believe that current assessment arrangements are promoting too narrow a range of skills and understanding, principally there is too great an emphasis on testing students' ability to recall facts. This leads to a situation where there is insufficient teaching for understanding or creativity, with accompanying negative effects on students' motivation and enjoyment.

 

4. Students' motivation and enjoyment is also being damaged by the frequency of testing. We note that once students start year 9, they are likely to be doing national tests of some sort at least once a year for the next five years assuming that they study GCSE and then A-level. It would be important to ensure that any move towards personalised assessment diminishes the assessment load on students.

 

5. A number of teachers have commented that changing assessment patterns and in particular modularisation have made it more difficult for students to assimilate subtle and difficult concepts.

 

6. The current accountability climate seems to produce some paradoxical outcomes. For example, the National Foundation for Educational Research has some evidence that those schools who do not spend Year 6 revising for KS2 tests in science actually achieve better performance. Schools that teach exciting science and engage their children with the curriculum tend to do well in the tests. Despite this, the majority of teachers are aware that their performance in national tests is made public via league tables and, consequently, there is a tendency to teach to the test, which certainly has a deleterious effect on the quality of learning. What's more, this approach also tends to stop teachers being able to add material or to move at a faster pace. It is noticeable that schools in the private sector, which are immune from the need for testing, are able to achieve more than even the best state schools, where able students may not be sufficiently stretched.

 

7. The tests themselves are blunt instruments that have a number of undesired consequences. They are probably most effective in encouraging improvement in underachieving schools and in chiming with a political need for openness. It is far from clear, however, that they are effective in improving learning, particularly at the upper end of the spectrum. Their importance to the popularity and hence the finances of the school are such that no teacher can afford to ignore them, but there seems little doubt that they hamper the better teachers. In addition to the arguments presented above, there is also the matter of the time taken out of the curriculum to prepare for examinations.

 

8. It is disappointing that despite the amount of assessment that is taking place in schools - it tells us very little. For example, the Institute has recently commissioned a review of the research into the under-representation of girls in A-level physics. The review found that:

 

Boys' performance is slightly ahead of that of girls in national science tests at KS3. However, analysis of a representative sample showed that, in both the higher and lower tests, generally boys did better on physics questions and girls on biology questions.

 

The review suggested that some gender differences in performance in physics arise from differences in student experience outside school. But the review concluded that there is little recent research in this area that could explain these differences.

 

9. Too frequently assessment seems to be an afterthought. For example, the Qualification and Curriculum Agency (QCA) is suggesting that the National Curriculum Review will lead to the most significant changes since the inception of the National Curriculum; and yet, it has not produced any material to show how theses changes are reflected in the assessment.

 

10. We believe this is in part a consequence of a system that is struggling to cope with the number of examinations that are taking place and the rate of curriculum change; this also leads to insufficient time and resource being dedicated to improving the validity, reliability and manageability of assessment. However, there is also a lack of clarity about who is responsible for the quality of the testing regime.

 

11. QCA should be accountable to all of those with a stake in assessment; learners, teachers, parents etc. As a regulatory authority we believe that QCA should be accountable for the quality and rigour of the assessment regime. QCA does not seem to share this view. Following the recent changes to the KS4 curriculum for science, the Institute reviewed a number of the new GCSE specifications and found a number of errors in the physics. When QCA was advised of these, the Institute was asked to pass the errors on to the awarding bodies.

 

12. We believe that QCA has now insisted that awarding bodies have to consult with subject experts, such as subject associations and professional bodies before submitting specifications. However, there has been no discussion with the subject associations or professional bodies to find out if there is the capacity to support this work. In addition, there has been no indication as to how any disputes between experts and awarding bodies might be resolved and consequently there is a lack of clarity about the whole quality assurance process. It is also not clear what role the National Assessment Agency plays in ensuring the quality and rigor of assessment.

 

13. An essential criterion for the assessment and testing regime should be to assure a consistent standard at every level.  We believe that the move to reduce the number of examination boards was definitely a good thing but there remains the question of whether having several awarding bodies is a good idea. The one obvious benefit of multiple awarding bodies is that it enables the development of different specifications with their own particular flavour; this has been a significant factor in enabling curriculum development in England.

 

14. However, there is a danger that this curriculum development will be stifled now that the awarding bodies are engaging in publishing. The fact that exam boards are in competition and are also generating revenue as publishers of educational resources casts some doubt over the whole examination system. In the current system, there is nothing to prevent an exam board from marketing itself as easier than its competitors and virtually no method of ensuring that they are not. It is difficult to see the benefits of competition in this environment.

 

15. Another assessment issue that has a particular resonance for physics is that the system does not appear to be capable recognising attainment across the curriculum - some subjects seem to be more severely graded than others. In what is effectively a free market for subject choice, where grades count for everything, this has a bad effect on the subjects that are perceived as more difficult. Anecdotally, this effect is not just the result of students avoiding the more difficult subjects but also schools and colleges actively discouraging students from taking subjects that could weaken their league table position. So far as we are aware, such differences have been well documented and yet there have been no attempts to move towards consistent standards.

 

16. The Institute would like to see an assessment regime that is valid, effective, and positive in its impact on teaching and learning, whilst commanding public confidence. In addition, the Institute would support moves to reduce the assessment load that is placed upon students and teachers. We believe that refocusing of the national testing scheme is overdue and that this should include:

 

sampling to explore national trends in students performance;

greater emphasis on teacher assessment to improve individual performance;

more professional development for teachers on assessment;

development of assessment tools that better match the aims of the curriculum;

greater connectivity between the curriculum and its assessment; and

a reduction in the number of national examinations, for example it is not clear that examinations at KS3 and at AS are justified.

 

June 2007