Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Need more sums?

How do you read a GCSE science specification?  I don't mean how you cope with the words, but which parts do you pay most attention to? I ask because one of the appendices in the 2011 specifications is likely to have significant impact on questions, both in the external assessments and in the controlled assessments.  This is the set of mathematical skills. Arguably it shouldn't be stuck in an appendix, where it runs the risk of being ignored.

In one sense these skills are nothing new. Specifications have had such lists for years and the one in the new specs isn’t much different to the previous versions.  However, its status is different. In previous years the list of skills constituted something that examiners could make use of if they wanted to. If they wanted to set a question that called upon the student to perform mathematical operations, this list indicated what was legitimate. However, the current list is one that has to be assessed. Not all of them in every series (in the same way that not all of the content is assessed in every series) but all of them over a period of time, either in external assessments or in controlled assessments.

There's a bit at the end that is Higher Tier only, but apart from that the list is the same list for any GCSE science course (core, additional or separate science) and the same for all awarding organisations. This means that those mathematical skills will need to be assessed in each of the sciences.

Furthermore, numerical answers (whether from calculation or graph) are now expected to be 'developed', i.e. the candidate is then likely to be asked in a later part of the question to make use of the number. No more setting a calculation for the sake of setting a calculation. It’s now likely that a student will be expected, having arrived at a numerical answer, be asked to apply it in some way or to make a judgment on it.

It is also worthwhile to look at the correlation between mathematical skills and assessment objectives. For example, recalling a unit or selecting the appropriate formula is AO1 (recall, select and communicate knowledge and understanding of science) and therefore likely to be in an external assessment. However, basing a conclusion upon the evidence in a graph is AO3 (analyse and evaluate evidence, make reasoned judgments and draw conclusions based on evidence) and a much more likely candidate for the controlled assessment.

On the one hand this seems reasonable. There is a trend towards all sciences becoming more mathematical and students with weaker numeracy skills are likely to find themselves struggling in most science courses post 16.  However it does mean that the development of mathematical skills for students doing any science at GCSE will need to be checked and addressed. Science teams supporting their students most effectively are those in which they know the range of skills, how to address them and have co-ordinated their approach with that of the Maths team.

Ed Walsh
Science Advisor for Cornwall Learning

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