09 SES 16 B, Economic Competencies / Impact of Assessment Reforms
International studies comparing educational attainment (e.g. PISA, TIMMS) have received increased attention over the last two decades. This, in turn, has led many countries to reform their educational provision, to better align with jurisdictions perceived to be ‘high performing’, by adopting features (e.g. curriculum, assessment) associated with those jurisdictions.
In this study we examine the impact of such a reform designed to increase educational attainment to align with high performing jurisdictions (Gove, 2013). England is undergoing a period of rapid qualification reform in secondary education. The reforms have led to changes in the subject content studied, introducing more demanding subject content, and, for some subjects, radical changes to assessment, typically removing coursework, and increasing the importance of traditional written examinations. While the reforms aim to align the English curriculum with other high performing jurisdictions, they have faced criticism that the new content is inaccessible to students, and the emphasis on written examinations may exclude students who do not perform well in examinations. Teaching associations have asserted that the reformed qualifications are causing students higher levels of stress and anxiety, leading to increased mental health concerns (ASCL, 2017), which may have an impact on performance for some students, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (Putwain, 2008) The speed of the introduction of the reforms has also required teachers to revise their teaching plans, increasing workload for teachers, in a context where teachers already experience high workload (Higton et al, 2017).
Students in England take qualifications (General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSEs) aged 16, usually in approximately 8-10 subjects, typically including English language, English literature, mathematics, the sciences, with students able to choose from among the humanities and creative and technical subjects. GCSEs in English language, English literature and mathematics were among the first qualifications to be reformed, with the first students taking the new qualifications in 2017, following a two or three year course of study. Other reformed GCSE subjects will be first assessed in 2018 and 2019. GCSE results are used to inform progression of students to post-16 study: students who do not achieve a passing grade in English language and mathematics must retake the qualifications as part of their post-16 course of study. Furthermore, GCSE results are also key performance indicators for schools, and sometimes linked to performance related pay for teachers. As such, GCSEs are considered high stakes qualifications for both students and their teachers.
This study focuses on the delivery of the reformed GCSE English language, English literature and mathematics for the first cohort of students, by surveying Heads of English and Mathematics departments, who had responsibility for leading the delivery of the new qualifications. We investigate the impact of the reforms on teachers and students, and examine any changes to teacher subject expertise, Fachdidaktik, collaboration with colleagues, as well as the impact on students’ subject knowledge, and engagement. Teachers were surveyed twice: immediately following the first examinations, and following publication of results. This allowed evaluation of teacher perceptions at the end of the course to be compared with their reflections once they had reflected on their students’ performance in their examinations.
What aspects of the reform were teachers most anxious or excited about?
- How was their delivery of the new GCSE course different from their previous practice?
- What changes did participants observe in teachers and their students?
- What was the examination experience of students?
- Following publication of examination results, to what extent do teachers consider any changes in practice to be effective?
- What are the implications for the subsequent cohorts of GCSE students, in English language, English literature, mathematics, and other subjects?
The Heads of English and mathematics from 25 schools in the Whole Education Network (in England) were invited to take part in the research. Whole Education is a partnership of schools and organisations which facilitates shared learning and collaboration between schools, and provides professional development (http://www.wholeeducation.org/). Heads of department were invited, because they are typically experienced teachers, with responsibility to lead and support other teachers in their subject, while also teaching students. As such, they are able to provide insight on the impact of the reform on teachers, and also (more indirectly), on students. All participants were directly involved in delivering the new qualifications and associated course of study. Two online questionnaires were developed. The questionnaires were primarily comprised of open response questions, with additional prompts to help respondents to structure their responses, although teachers were able to structure their responses freely if they chose. The first questionnaire was completed by participants in late June 2017, after their students had taken their final examinations, but before results were published. The second questionnaire was completed by participants in late August 2017, immediately following the publication of examination results. Participants were informed that each questionnaire would take approximately 90 minutes to complete. Participants were not rewarded for participation, but were invited to an event to discuss the results. 12 Heads of English, and 13 Heads of mathematics from a total of 17 secondary schools responded to the first questionnaire, and of these, 8 Heads of English and 10 Heads of mathematics from 12 secondary schools responded to the second survey. The data were analysed using thematic analysis (free response questions only). Any prompts given to teachers were used as a starting point for the analysis for each question. Each set of responses were subsequently coded to identify any additional themes.
Before results were published, teachers reported high levels of anxiety. Much of this anxiety was related to the need to predict student attainment accurately. This was linked to the high levels of accountability in the English educational system. Teachers also reported that the reforms had substantially increased their workload, because they had had to adjust to new content. English teachers, moving from an assessment model with an emphasis on coursework to written paper examinations, needed to develop new pedagogical strategies. In mathematics, more demanding content meant that teachers had to develop methods for teaching certain topics to a much wider range of abilities. Some teachers were positive about the opportunity to teach new content, and to review their teaching practice. Teachers reported making substantial changes to their practice. For example, several teachers indicated that the level of collaboration among teachers within their department had increased; mention of collaboration was generally linked to higher levels of positivity about the reform. Participants reported that although many of their students had better subject knowledge, they also showed higher levels of anxiety than previous cohorts. However, this was not universal, with one English teacher noting that their students felt proud of their subject knowledge, and developed a sense of “cultural superiority”. Furthermore, a small minority of teachers noted that they thought that they had transferred their own anxiety about the reform to their students, and would avoid doing so in future. Following the publication of examination results, the majority of teachers in the study reflected that their students’ performance was broadly as expected. Although the reform had lead to anxiety and uncertainty, several teachers described a growing confidence in their professional expertise as teachers, realising that even significant curricular and assessment reform did not negate their professional skills and knowledge.
Association of School and College Leaders (2017. New GCSEs are increasing stress and anxiety. https://www.ascl.org.uk/news-and-views/news_news-detail.new-gcses-are-increasing-stress-and-anxiety.html Gove, M. (2013). Reformed GCSEs in English and mathematics. Written Statement to Parliament, Delivered 1st November, 2013 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/reformed-gcses-in-english-and-mathematics Higton, J., Leonardi, S. Richards, N. Choudhoury, A., Sofroniou, N., and Owen, D. (2017). Teacher Workload Survey 2016 Research Report. London: Department for Education. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/592499/TWS_2016_FINAL_Research_report_Feb_2017.pdf Putwain, D.W. (2008). Test anxiety and GCSE performance: the effect of gender and socio‐economic background, Educational Psychology in Practice, 24:4, 319-334, DOI: 10.1080/02667360802488765
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