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Silence. Tense, pen-dropping silence. School corridors, assembly halls and gyms the country over have, this academic year, fallen into silence. With the advent of 100% examination for GCSE in a number of subjects and a significant shift in weighting towards examination for many GCEs, it seems that some schools have started testing in earnest like never before.
In this blog we aim to discuss the challenges and potential rewards of mock exams and how to get the most out of them for you and your students.
If all schools respond to the challenges of English qualification reform in this way, this current generation of students are likely to be the most assessed group of individuals the UK education system has ever produced: in my own school, by the start of this Spring term we have already conducted mock exams for Years 11, 12 and 13. And this is only the first tranche of a significantly increased timetable of mocks this year, designed to 'prepare' students for the summer's onslaught. Given the massive impact that exams have on the whole school community, the disruption to timetabling, the marking workload and the considerable anxiety felt by students, it is vital, therefore, for all schools to ensure that this heightened testing regime actually generates benefits. Otherwise, it's pointless torture.
As teachers, how do we manage this mock maelstrom? Pragmatic decisions have to be made about what you actually examine in mock conditions, and how frequently. It's impossible to do it all. Students studying towards the new English 9-1 GCSEs will need to sit around 4 hours of examination in both language and literature - an impossible schedule of mocks to set and mark. In order to tackle this issue, in my own department we have used weekly homework to answer individual exam questions, working towards completion of an exam paper over a series of weeks and tailoring teaching towards the assessment objectives that students are finding most challenging.
When we mark mock exams, we also need to consider what we actually do with the data we are generating. My own approach has been to continually review our Year 11 curriculum, acting upon live feedback from exams and also drilling down into which groups of students need what additional support. Do we need a workshop for the more able students on how they manipulate form in their writing? Do we collapse all intervention sessions in order that one teacher can deliver a session on a particular aspect of writing to the whole cohort? Effectively training teachers at the same time to ensure coordination and consistency of approach across the year group? It's no good offering intervention to a student if the messages they receive contradict or conflict with what their class teacher tells them. I firmly believe we need to be brave and flexible in our teaching strategies as we learn about how students are coping with the new demands of the 9-1 curriculum.
The other challenge that mocks have presented us with is the knotty issue of grade boundaries, or their lack. And whilst this has definitely added a frisson to the teaching of this Year 11 cohort, there are some known unknowns here (thank you Rumsfeld). We know that the grade boundaries are going to be set using statistical predictions which will ensure alignment, for example, between the 3/4 boundary and the C/D boundary of old or between the 6/7 boundary and the old A/B boundary. We know that if this cohort perform in similar ways to previous cohorts, then they will achieve a similar spread of results. What has altered here is beyond what we mere teachers can influence. We cannot influence national policy changes such as new benchmarks for measuring a school’s ‘success’. We shouldn't try. Ultimately, teachers know students and know the standards they are capable of. Now is the time to stand firm and trust in our instincts. We do know what we're doing here.
GCE students sitting both AS and A Levels this year are in a much clearer position, given that, for them, their grades are still recognisable and the language we can use around these hasn't altered. In addition, (I say this as both an examiner and a teacher) what looked like a B grade in old money still probably looks like a B grade in new money and that outcomes remain comparable with the legacy specifications despite the differences in subject content.
And what do all these mock exams mean for the punters at the raw end of it all? How are students impacted by the move to increased examination and linear courses? One key impact is inevitably additional anxiety for students. Anything we can do to 'normalise' examination, chunk it, break it down, de-mystify it, walk and talk it, will be a help here.
Finally, we need to address exam stamina. What can we do to support a generation that has not needed to develop long stretches of focus and attention? I spend lots of time having in-class competitions with students seeing 'who can finish first', 'who can write the most', 'who can produce 3 analysis paragraphs in a given amount of time'. Daft, short activities that build writing stamina and the ability to write against the clock. Every little helps.
I'm excited for the summer. Like a student, I can't wait to see what will actually be on the papers. And like a coach, I shall have been preparing and limbering my teams for the match for the last two years. We've practised our corners and our penalty set-pieces over and over; we've sat in the changing room after trial matches analysing what went wrong and what amendments we needed to make to our training regime. We're match-fit and ready for what this year’s examinations can throw at us. Bring it on.
Please comment below with your ideas to support teachers and student through the changes for English Language or Literature. You can also get in touch via our mailbox English@ocr.org.uk or follow us on Twitter @OCR_English
Julie Platten - Head of English at Freman College
Julie Platten is Head of English at Freman College, an upper school in North Hertfordshire. She has been an A Level examiner for OCR for a number of years and has recently been appointed Principal Examiner for modules on the new 2015 A Level specifications. In order to deepen her understanding of the impact of assessment on her classroom, Julie is currently studying towards a Postgraduate Certificate in Educational Assessment and Examinations, a course collaboration between Cambridge Assessment and the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.
Before training to teach, Julie had an extensive career in business, latterly focused in marketing and internal communications for the telecommunications sector.