Need to Know: Cheating in GCSE computer science

Ofqual is expected to publish its decision on the future of GCSE computer science this week, following the discovery of widespread "malpractice", including plagiarism. Here is your essential briefing:

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Widespread malpractice in GCSE computer science coursework has prompted Ofqual to look at making last-minute changes to the qualification.

In November, the exams watchdog said the malpractice had made it no longer possible for exam boards to ensure that grades awarded this summer would fairly reflect the ability of pupils unless changes were made.

A consultation was launched – which closed just before Christmas – to gather views on alternative assessment arrangements that would apply to pupils sitting exams this summer and 2019.

What was the malpractice?

Pupils were supposed to complete a practical project under strictly controlled conditions. But tasks and detailed solutions for the non-exam assessment for GCSE computer science were posted on online forums – contrary to exam board rules. Some posts were viewed thousands of times.

Pupils, who will take their exams in the summer, were able to start their non-exam assessment from September 1 last year. It was shortly after this date that Ofqual became aware of the malpractice.  

However, it is difficult to know how many pupils may have gained an unfair advantage from a particular online resource – and it is also hard to identify who may have posted details online.

How much was the project worth?

It was supposed to make up 20 per cent of the computer science GCSE grade. The project requires pupils to solve a problem, set by their exam board, by writing a computer program and then to evaluate their solutions.

The pupil's report must be their own work and must be completed in 20 hours, under controlled conditions.

Ofqual originally decided to allow non-exam assessment in this subject because they believed it would enable pupils to demonstrate their skills in a context that was more reflective of real-life.

Which qualifications are being looked at?

The new computer science GCSE – which is being taken for the first time this summer – offered by the AQA, OCR, Edexcel and WJEC Eduqas exam boards. Ofqual also had concerns about the legacy GCSE in computing.

The watchdog's concerns were “heightened” because of the degree of malpractice that was found among pupils who had been awarded the legacy GCSE in computing last summer, the consultation said.  

How widespread is the problem?

For one exam board in 2017, concerns about possible malpractice involved around 10 per cent of its schools and colleges offering its legacy GCSE in computing.

Last week, Ofqual revealed that the number of penalties for malpractice issued to school and college staff increased by 149 per cent between 2016 and 2017 – and penalties to students rose by a quarter.

And the report suggested that widespread malpractice in computing was likely to have contributed to a sharp rise in penalties issued to school staff and students last summer.

Maladministration accounted for the largest proportion of penalties issued to school and college staff – and computing was the subject with the largest number of penalties.

Meanwhile, plagiarism – the second most common type of malpractice for students – accounted for 17 per cent of penalties, the vast majority of which (86 per cent) were in computing.

What are could have triggered problems? 

Some of the malpractice could be taking place as there are pressures on staff to perform well in league tables at a time of significant reform for secondary schools.

Especially because GCSE computer science now counts towards the science element of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – one of the government’s accountability measures for schools.

In addition, this summer will be the first time that pupils sit the new computer science GCSE – which teachers have been trying to grapple with during the last year and a half.

In Ofqual’s report on malpractice, the exams watchdog acknowledged that some of the posts online appeared to be from teachers seeking advice on how to prepare their pupils for the task.

They said: “We understand teachers’ desire to ensure they are properly equipped to teach their students. However, discussing the non-exam assessment task outside the classroom is a breach of the exam boards’ rules and, therefore, malpractice.”

So what is being proposed by Ofqual?

The exams watchdog’s preferred option is for pupils to continue completing the practical project but for it to no longer count towards a pupil’s 9-to-1 GCSE grade.  

For students who have already begun the GCSE qualification, Ofqual has proposed that teachers would no longer be required to formally provide marks for each pupil’s tasks to their exam board.

But they add that teachers would still be able to provide feedback to pupils on their completed task – which they recognise is a “significant piece of work” – as preparation for their exams.

Exam boards would be required to collect statements from schools on pupils' completion of the task.  

The decision on the interim changes is expected this week. But Ofqual is also working on possible longer-term solutions for the non-exam assessment.

What is Ofqual worried about in the long-term?

Ofqual has concerns about the way that the non-exam assessment in computer science has been affecting teachers following a recent report from the Royal Society.

The report said that teachers felt the new rules for the non-exam assessment were “onerous” and “consumed a disproportionate amount of teacher time” in the computer science GCSE.

Ofqual might look at a model similar to the GCSE science subjects where exams include questions on practical skills and assume that pupils have such practical experience.

They will consult separately on possible long-term solutions for pupils taking exams after 2019.

Who will be affected if these last-minute changes go ahead?

Since the consultation was announced, teachers and pupils on the computer science GCSE course have been in limbo – waiting for a decision to be made for the qualification being sat this summer.

If the changes go ahead, then pupils who began studying the computer science GCSE in September 2016 and September 2017 will be affected.

A number of pupils will have already completed the non-exam assessment – and yet it may not count towards their final grade. 

We do not know at this stage how many pupils have chosen to study the new GCSE. But last year there was a 7 per cent increase in computing GCSE entries – from 62,454 in 2016 to 66,751 to 2017.

It is likely that the entries could rise again this summer as computer science counts towards the EBacc – and now that the ICT GCSE has been scrapped (it will not be sat after this summer) pupils may choose computer science instead. 

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