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GCSE computer science should be exam only, says Ofqual

Oh, and some exam boards might need to offer paper-based tests due to schools' crap IT kit

Students starting GCSE computer science in 2020 may be assessed by exams only, amid concerns about schools' IT kit, burdens on teachers and malpractice in non-exam tests.

The education watchdog Ofqual made the proposals in a consultation published yesterday.

It said that all assessments – including programming skills – for students who start their courses in 2020 (and will be taking exams in 2022) will be done by exam.

The watchdog had to change how evaluations are made for GCSE computer science at the end of 2017, after it found extracts and complete tasks from the non-exam assessments (NEA) were available online and on collaborative programming sites.

The smoking gun was a set of programming tasks that should have been carried out over 20 hours in controlled conditions, with all information to be kept confidential. But both students and teachers, who were seeking advice on how to prepare students from their peers, were found to have discussed them online.

As a short-term fix, Ofqual decided that students would still have to complete the 20 hours of work, but this would not contribute to their final grade, and teachers wouldn't have to hand out formal marks. This will remain the same for students taking exams in 2019.

In the long-term, Ofqual wanted to reinstate the original assessment weightings for programming – they made up 20 per cent of the overall grade – to reflect the importance of these skills.

However, the body said it had concluded "that it is not possible to use non-exam assessment in the qualification to assess programming skills in a way that is manageable, reliable and fair".

It also noted that having these restrictions hindered teaching, as they "did not align well with real-world approaches to programming" – namely that it is often a collaborative task.

"Professional programmers often work collaboratively, solving problems by seeking and building on existing programs, developing solutions with input from others and using the same code repositories that were facilitating student malpractice," Ofqual said.

As such, it is proposing that, for students taking exams in 2022, programming skills will be assessed through exams, which will make up 20 per cent of the overall grade.

Exam boards will be expected to do this in "different and potentially innovative ways under exam conditions", but must require students to "complete the four steps of designing, writing, testing and refining a program to achieve a task or solve a problem as separate or combined activities".

Ofqual said it was "wary" of stipulating whether the assessment should be completed on-screen, online or on paper, in part due to the parlous state of many education institutes' tech.

"We are mindful that not all schools and colleges have the necessary IT resources for all their students to sit such an assessment simultaneously," the body said.

"We do not wish for our long-term approach to place additional pressures on centres’ IT infrastructure, or to exclude students from taking a GCSE in the subject because their school or college could not support the assessment."

The body said that granting exam boards greater discretion over the form of assessment would allow them to account for the variations in IT resources, so different boards could take approaches that cater for different levels.

Ofqual said the interim approach it implemented last year would remain in place for another year to allow the exam boards time to develop and test their assessments.

The consultation document (PDF) also sets out other possible options for assessing programming, along with the problems associated with them, asking for feedback on the proposals.

The nine possibilities range from reinstating the NEA but with stricter rules – which Ofqual said would increase the burden on teachers without eliminating malpractice risk – to assessing programming skills in exam conditions.

Other options include a day-long assessment, but Ofqual pointed out this would put significant demands on ICT and networks in schools or assessment centres; and creating a separate pass/merit/distinction mark for programming – but the body noted it would be hard to demarcate these skills or assess each students' contribution in collaborative work.

The body said it wanted "anyone with an interest in GCSE computer science" to respond to the consultation – this can be done online or via email, to this address: ®

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