Farewell to Controlled Assessments

It is 2015. This is it – the year in which we have to start teaching the new GCSEs. Exam only. Linear. Untiered. No coursework. No controlled assessments.

How many English teachers out there are rejoicing secretly (or perhaps openly) at the prospect of an end to controlled assessments?

When I was a Leader of English I calculated that my faithful Key Stage 4 Manager and I moderated about a million words a year – such was our fear of being scaled and results nosediving. We lost days of our lives. There came a point (quite early on, if I remember rightly) when we resented this enormously. I can’t wait to see some reduction in the excessive marking load that English teachers have to cope with and I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers who feel the same way. Coursework and controlled assessments were flawed and whilst they did provide some students with the opportunity to produce some genuine and exciting work which they could not have achieved in a two hour exam, they were also wide open to abuse. Yes, exams are unfair – but so is going into a controlled assessment with more notes than your neighbour because your handwriting happens to be smaller and you can fit more on a side of A4.

So now we have to teach to 100% exam with no tiers. For the vast majority of English teachers this will present yet another new challenge but at least it will mean that marking will be confined to much shorter pieces of work – a piece of writing that could realistically be produced in under an hour or reading answers that are likely to be a couple of sides at most. And these sorts of exam-style responses do present the opportunity to produce gap analyses of our students’ skills that are relevant to final outcomes from the beginning of the course. There was never much point in gap analysing an essay on Of Mice and Men because students wouldn’t be doing this kind of task again. For the same reason, there was little point in giving students detailed, user-friendly feedback on such tasks. Now we will be able to set a Question 3, analyse students’ responses and use this analysis to inform feedback, differentiation, planning and delivery. This kind of tracking can be repeated at regular intervals to enable teams to review progress and plan intervention, for example:

Name Paper 2 Q1 Paper 2 Q2 Paper 2 Q3 Paper 2 Q4
Milo No quotations Comment on structural devices Develop explanations Choose quotations more carefully
Abi Quotations too long Read the question – referred to whole text Use subject terminology Develop comparison of writers’ attitudes

There are other advantages to the ways in which we will have to adapt. In recent years controlled assessments have dominated Year 10 and resulted in a curriculum which is delivered in clunky chunks – a unit on Spoken Language study, a unit on Of Mice and Men and so on. Far too much time has been spent teaching the content of these controlled assessments rather than preparing students for exams. In terms of how we teach English Language, we will now have more freedom to choose texts, authors and sources which suit us and our students best (as long as they are relevant to the requirements of the specification we have chosen, of course). We will have two years to prepare students for the challenges of the final exams. We will be able to spend Year 10 enjoying English rather than pressurising our students and ourselves to get through unwieldy essays. We will no longer need to spend hours in department meetings moderating very lengthy, and often very dull, controlled assessments. Supporting inexperienced teachers with their marking and assessment will be streamlined, especially if exam boards provide comprehensible mark schemes. The fear of being scaled will be removed. So, whilst we will be losing a degree of control over a percentage of the final outcome, we will also be losing that sense of panic about whether we have fallen out of tolerance or blotted our copybook with the board. Our responsibility will be to teach to the very best of our ability and send our students into the exam hall as prepared as we can make them.

web_Jill_CarterJill is a teacher, former leader of English and author, with over 20 years of teaching experience. She currently works in a secondary school in Kent, and, in what spare time she has, she writes articles, and is an author, working on a number of books found throughout schools, including Ignite English and new 2015 GCSE English publishing.