The UK Government says the changes will help youngsters develop the experimental and practical skills they need to continue studying science

Assessment for new science A Levels criticised

Sweeping changes to A Levels that will see science practical work assessed separately from exams have been criticised by science campaigners.

According to details of the new science A Levels (biology, chemistry and physics), from September 2015 sixth-formers will have to carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities – the first time such as requirement has been set out, the Department for Education (DfE) said, as currently students do not have to be directly assessed on their lab work.

The move will help youngsters develop the experimental and practical skills they need to continue studying science, the department insisted, and the new courses will also contain more mathematical content, such as physics students studying the ideas linked to calculus.

Among changes to GCSEs is an overhaul of science teaching and Education Secretary Michael Gove said the level of details and scientific knowledge that pupils will need in science-based subjects has increased "significantly", with more maths for each topic. Pupils will have to cover new topics such as the human genome, gene technology and space physics, he said.

Gove said: "Our changes will make GCSEs and A Levels more ambitious, with greater stretch for the most able. They will prepare young people better for the demands of employment and further study.

“They will address the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down, which have undermined students' achievements. And they will give pupils, parents, teachers, universities and employers greater confidence in the integrity and reliability of our qualifications system."

But SCORE, a partnership of organisations aiming to improve science education founded by the Royal Society, has expressed concern, saying the changes made by regulatory body Ofqual to the way the practical part of the A-level course is assessed will affect both school reporting procedures and university admissions processes.

Under the new system students will get a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ grade for their practical work, which will be separate from their grade for the written exam, though the written exams will include questions that test students’ knowledge and understanding of the experiments they have carried out.

Professor Julia Buckingham, chair of SCORE, said: “We fully appreciate that reform is needed but the current solution is rushed and does not address operational issues. We believe we can develop workable new approaches but Ofqual has decided to go ahead with an inadequate solution.

The change has been devised to overcome a perceived malpractice in A-level coursework by some schools, but SCORE says the separation of practical marks in science from the overall A-level grade will leave universities with an incomplete reflection of students’ scientific skills and competencies.

Buckingham added: “Universities are likely to perceive A-level grades as a full reflection of a student’s knowledge and ability, but the grading will not include practical work which is an integral component of science learning and an essential foundation for studying science at university.

“With schools having a very narrow accountability framework, another unintended but serious consequence of this reform is that schools may reduce the opportunities for students to do practical work if the separate mark for practical work is viewed as less important than the A-level grade used on UCAS forms, for example. With poorer performing schools often the least inclined to undertake practical work, this reform is likely to have a larger effect on already disadvantaged students.

“It could also serve to leave students in our schools behind their international peers – as governments around the world seek to hone their nation’s scientific talent, we send a strong message to teachers and students that downgrades the importance of ‘doing’ science.”

SCORE has urged Ofqual to work with UCAS and university admissions departments, to communicate the implications of separate marking in practical science assessment.  

Buckingham said: “Ultimately, universities must be able to continue to admit students on the basis of their scientific knowledge and skills in the round – the fundamental principle in doing science is about being practical: being able to think and work like a scientist – the introduction of this separate mark serves to further jeopardise the process that universities must rely upon to get a complete picture of their applicants’ scientific ability.”

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