Clumsy tests dull passion for science

2nd January 2004 at 00:00
Too much assessment is killing the goose that lays the golden egg by turning off potential scientists, says Jonathan Osborne

Nobody pretends that learning science, particularly at A-level, is easy.

These days it is one of the few subjects that demands the learning and memorisation of a fairly large number of facts - the parts of the body, the order of the planets or the difference between heat and temperature.

Currently, King's College London is conducting a set of closed seminars and open meetings for the Royal Society to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the current assessment arrange-ments in science. The product of these meetings will be a report to be published next spring.

The seminars are focused on how assessment can support the learning of science. However, half-way through the process it is becoming fairly clear that assessment is having a malign effect on both teachers' and students'

enjoyment of science, adding to its difficulties and exposing sores that those engaged with the structure of education in this country can no longer ignore. The Royal Society is sufficiently concerned to describe the situation as a crisis.

What, then, are the problems? Perhaps the most fundamental one is that the current system has progressively led to teachers' disengagement from the process of assessment. Yes, there may be coursework assessment of investigative skills but any teacher of science will tell you, as many have been telling us, that the environment of high stakes assessment has reduced all assessment of investigation in science to the overwhelming dominance of three practicals - measuring the resistance of a wire, the rates of a chemical reaction, and the rate of osmosis in a potato.

How can such a limited set of practical investigations develop or exemplify the wide range of skills and scientific practices that constitute science? Their use is driven simply by the need to maximise student chances of a high grade and, in the process, has reduced empirical enquiry in science to a set of recipe-like steps. It's a bit like reducing the teaching of performance in music to three standard scales on a recorder. Any teacher with even half an understanding of the nature of science knows that this approach to investigative work bears as much relation to science as painting by numbers does to art.

Moreover, it doesn't fool the students who recognise it for what it is - a ritualised performance and a waste of everybody's time. Faced with the prospect of more of this experience post-16, school students tend to walk away to other subjects and is it any wonder?

The devaluing of teacher assessment has led both politicians and the public to place an unjustified reliance on external assessment. In such a context the strings that bind the examination boards to the curriculum and the teaching of science have been progressively weakened.

The boards no longer have subject officers who engage with teachers or the science education community. Lacking either strong formal, or informal links with the science teaching profession, how can the examiners hope to offer the range and variety of assessment that the teaching of science needs to stimulate interest? In the case of Edexcel, the problem may even become worse as the exam board has now become part of a commercial company that will be primarily answerable to its shareholders and not to the society it serves.

The miracle is that, despite these inhibiting factors, there is still a lot of engaging and enthusiastic science teaching. But it is not because of the assessment system. Rather, it seems as if assessment is a major factor in putting students off studying science, while also putting teachers off teaching the subject. No wonder, then, that the profession is haemorrhaging large numbers of young teachers. Why give your body and soul to a professional life you have trouble believing in?

So what is the way out of this morass? The first is to realise that if teachers are to have a role in assessment why put all our eggs in one basket? Why can't coursework consist of a portfolio of different items - a data analysis exercise, a critical evaluation of the science in a contemporary scientific controversy, or a critical commentary on a standard scientific misconception? Not only would such assessment be more valid but it could be accumulated as time goes on.

The second is to recognise that the issue is not the quantity of assessment but its quality - and that can only be improved if teachers play a significant part in the process.

As it is, current assessment systems are simply killing the goose that lays the golden egg - our future scientists and therefore our future economic prosperity.

Nobody is arguing with the view that education requires some measuring of how well the system performs - but the trouble is that only the measurable becomes important.

And forcing school to compete against school, teacher against teacher, simply destroys the enjoyment of teaching and learning science - which is the very engine that drives all significant learning.

How to teach THE basics Science special, see centre pages Jonathan Osborne is professor of science education at King's College, London.There will be an opportunity to discuss the issues in this article at a meeting to be held at the annual conference of the Association for Science Education in Reading on January 10

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