An analysis and evaluation of pratical investigative assessment.

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Sreeja Bhaskaran


What you test is what you get. In the quest for accountability using the tool of assessment inevitably results in a tailoring of teaching to the required assessment. The pressure is on to teach the skills that can be counted and reported, but just how useful are these skills? Assessment in school science as with other subjects can take many forms from oral questioning to the marking of exercises set for homework or short written tests of knowledge. Most often we think of assessment in the context of public examinations such as the GCSE and the A-Level. Much of the media attention and political commentary places enormous faith in the ability of examination systems to give absolute answers. Indeed educationalists have identified government policy as that of an "empty commitment" (Black and William page5, 1998). Whilst the TGAT have publicly emphasised the importance of formative assessment the reality is that resources and political policy is clearly focused on the external testing of teachers and schools. Undoubtedly the national curriculum has increased the amount of testing. In the UK students are compulsorily examined at four points during their school career at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16. Summative assessment does have a role in so much that it can provide information for parents and employers that can indicate the overall achievement of pupils over a period of time. However it does not help the teacher of a pupil identify areas of difficulty early enough to correct them. The end of a topic test does not leave room to help the failed child to learn better. If the majority of assessment is seen to consist of testing low level skills and fact based knowledge, this is the diminishing of education to training students to perform certain prescribed behaviours, emphasis on outcomes rather than processes, encouraging the passive nature of learning and elevating the trivial observable short term behaviours over enriching, high order, creative, open ended, lifelong aspects of education.

Section 1 Assessment in school

The translation of the importance of assessment within the national curriculum into achievable policies in schools can be very different. I have taught in schools where there is a strong whole school policy on assessment (appendix 1) with a lot of in service training and departmental emphasis given to improving formative assessment. My lasting memories were of the quality of the teaching and learning experience that I was fortunate enough to participate in. However a summative impression of this particular school would have been very poor in relation to its position in league tables. The school that I am currently teaching in has a less coordinated approach to assessment. Having been criticised recently by OFSTED for the quality of teaching and assessment in general the response was to monitor standards more rigorously through more testing of pupils seeing this as a way of achieving performance improvement targets. Teaching in an environment where assessment is so closely coupled with testing generates fearful learning and limits the quality of teaching and learning.

Assessment of science at Key Stage 3 of the National curriculum is principally by externally set written tests towards the end of year 9. This test covers attainment targets 2,3, and 4. Scientific investigation or enquiry is the first attainment target of national curriculum science in which class teachers are required to assess their pupil performance. Investigations or explorations as they are sometimes called incorporate a new breed of practical activity. Investigative work encompasses a whole range of activities that are centered on helping pupils to learn. It is about encouraging pupils to ask questions and carry out investigations to answer their questions. The cognitive and practical processes of formulating hypothesis, controlling and manipulating variables, making appropriate measurements, interpreting data and applying knowledge of scientific concepts are all built up through investigative work. The fact that investigations give pupils an opportunity to test their own understanding of scientific phenomena is very important. Extensive evidence has been gathered which show that pupils come into science lessons with a whole range of ideas about why things happen, many of these do not fit the accepted scientific explanations (Osbourne and Freyberg 1985, Driver et al 1994). The process of changing from an original idea to a scientific one is difficult and many pupils will pass through school retaining their original ideas. They may even give correct explanations for examination purposes whilst still retaining considerable doubt over scientific reasoning. For meaningful learning to occur pupils must construct their own understanding by modifying their pre-existing ideas in light of new insights gained from their performance and outcome of the investigation. This constructivist approach to leaning is largely based upon the work of Children Learning in Science Project (CLSP 1987).

Assessment at Key Stage 4 is by means of the GCSE. Coursework requirements for the GCSE have focused on assessing investigative work as it is defined in the National Curriculum. The current model of assessment identifies four skill areas, planning, obtaining, analysing and evaluating evidence. With in the department that I am currently working in pupils are encouraged to develop their skills in the four areas throughout Key Sage 3 and 4. By the end of Key Stage 3 investigations carried out by pupils are marked according to the GCSE syllabus criteria. The department follow the NEAB board, the criteria by which each skill is to be assessed is enclosed (Appendix 2) The departments attitude towards moderation of assessed practicals differs from other departments that I have worked in. The emphasis is on individuals applying consistent standards, in relation to the marking criteria and exemplar material provided by the examining board. There is very little in the way of internal departmental moderation aiming to establish a conmen standard between staff. There are no formal moderation meetings, and so no opportunity to exchange and mark work independently and discuss changes. The drawbacks of such a system are self evident, in that the last three years external moderators made corrective adjustments twice to the departmental marks.
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I chose to use my year 9 to do some investigative work with. Although they were a relatively high ability set, discussions with the class teacher revealed that they had done very little practical or investigative-based work, with priority of time given to preparation for Standard Attainment Tests. I had to take this into consideration along with departmental policy of assessing investigations in accordance with examining board criteria at the end of Key Stage 3, which this group was at. My chosen activity would have to be a balance between being challenging enough to develop their thinking but ...

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