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Exams ‘useless’ for computer science, say experts



Computing experts have questioned the future of the subject in schools after Ofqual launched a consultation on plans to remove coursework from the computer science GCSE.

The exams regulator admitted it no longer believed that it was possible to use non-exam assessment (NEA) to assess programming skills in a way that was “manageable, reliable and fair”.

The 20-hour supervised coursework element of computer science still exists, but was removed from counting towards grades in 2019 and 2020 after tasks were leaked online and downloaded “thousands of times”.

In a consultation that runs until December 3, Ofqual now proposes that GCSE computer science become a permanent exam-only subject. The changes would come into effect for pupils starting their courses in 2020 and sitting exams in 2022.

But Leon Brown, a software developer, said that exams were “a useless way to assess people’s programming skills”.

“There can be many ways to solve one problem with code – a written exam introduces human bias from the examiner to mark valid code as incorrect,” he told Schools Week.

In practice, programmers often spent time researching the best way to tackle a problem online, Brown said, and pupils needed to learn how to adapt their knowledge for different problems rather than memorising particular code patterns ahead of a test.

“It would be more beneficial to have an informal interview to discuss a student’s understanding of programming concepts,” he said.

However, Miles Berry, a principal lecturer in computing education at Roehampton University, said the current situation was “literally pointless” and that Ofqual’s suggestion  was “undoubtedly a change for the better”.

“That said, I’m disappointed that Ofqual’s proposals offer little scope for assessing programming as a creative discipline: if open-ended project work is robust enough for A-level and degree work, why not GCSE?”

Drew Buddie, a computer science teacher and former chair of Naace, the education technology association, described the format of the existing GCSE as “irreparable” and in need of “a root and branch re-evaluation”.

If the government wanted to pursue an exam-only route it should reconsider the iGCSE, which it previously ruled out of counting towards schools’ Progress 8 scores.

The computer science iGCSE had no coursework and was widely favoured by private schools, he said, as it avoided the “box-ticking” exercise of the NEA, which was a “massive disadvantage to children in state schools”.

Sally Collier, the chief regulator at Ofqual, said she wanted to “encourage innovation” under the new proposals, which included giving exam boards discretion over the form of exam assessment they offered.



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7 Comments

  1. It is bad for everyone in school when “Sally Collier, the chief regulator at Ofqual, said she wanted to “encourage innovation” . This subject has actually changed very little in the last thirty years and is essentially a very methodical, bland and almost formulaic subject to teach and examine. Yet we teachers are plagued by non-teachers constantly coming out the woodwork, advising us all to find really new, exciting, fun or innovative ways to deliver and assess the subject. It really is not welcome or necessary.

    Just let us teachers in school do our job without these endless calls for something new from people who don’t teach, PLEASE!

  2. Too many people have an agenda, especially some of the people quoted in this article. Drew Buddie has been a vocal critic of Computer Science since day zero and has done all he can to get it scrapped – him saying that it is irreparable is therefore no surprise. The software engineer’s comments is also laughably misinformed – industry programmers may well use online resources to assist them, but the fact is that 14 year olds lack the experience and maturity to do this without cheating – as proved by the last few year’s worth of GCSE Computing / Computer Science results, as soon as you let a student have Internet access during the assessment, they won’t look for online resources to help them, they’re straight on Twitter and StackOverflow asking for the answer. Ofsted’s response to this (assessment via examinations) is not because exams are the best way to go – far from it – but rather because the other methods have been tried and failed miserably.

    Of course, the rather large elephant in the room is that a huge number (I would even say a majority) of teachers of this subject are woelfully under qualified and under-confident in teaching the skills required. Is it any wonder students cheat when given the chance if the chances are that they haven’t been taught the skills needed?

    • What you say suggests that the subject needs to incorporate the ability to demonstrate research skills as part of the assessment. That could be in the form of writing an essay to describe how the code was constructed and a justification of why the approach was chosen. Research skills are as critical as the requirement to write code in software development.

      The part about me being laughably misinformed is funny considering I’ve taught computer science at GCSE, A-Level, degree and master’s degree levels to have seen the real reasons why students find learning programming skills difficult. 😉

      Here’s a bit on my philosophy to no nonsense programming:

      https://www.nextpoint.co.uk/preview/programming-concepts.pdf

  3. Bob Harrison

    Assessing a computing qualification by pen and paper is like learning to drive in an F1 car but being tested on how you ride a horse (credited to Prof Stephen Heppell) It is also a sad indictment of the lack of investment in the digital infrastructure of our schools and colleges when paper and ink is a more relevant,reliable and valid instrument of assessment than digital technology.

  4. Marlon Thomas

    The best programmers plan the design of their program before even writing a single line of code on the computer. Teaching trainee programmers to plan out their design using pencil and paper is actually not as barmy as it sounds. It trains them to dry run their code mentally before actually implementing it on the computer and will make them better programmers in the long run. That said, exams to assess programming ability do not necessarily have to utilise pencil and paper – it is possible to use CBT-style assessments in a controlled exam room environment with auto-grading software that can check code input on the computer for syntax, login and style errors.

    • This perspective is good for situations and work cultures such as government projects where there is a heavy focus on political accountability – hence why they favour heavyweight project methodologies like PRINCE2. On those projects, it’s most important to appear to be doing the job rather than to actually be doing the job.

      The problem with that approach is that a large chunk of the budget is eaten by excessive planning – ruling it as unsuitable for small budget projects. In many cases, the planning takes so long that changes in the business environment leads to a need to modify the software specification – hence leading to plans becoming redundant. This becomes a serious problem in environments that are continuously impacted changes.

      What’s needed from the education system is an awareness of agile development – which covers both project management and code patterns. With a focus on keeping the project adaptable, both the code and the planning are defined in ways to anticipate and embrace change requirements without creating excessive alteration overhead.

      An exam wouldn’t be enough to assess this knowledge, but a practical project supported by observation, writeup and justification of each component would allow students to demonstrate their abilities. The only problem with this is that there would be a higher skills requirement of the teachers. Even where this is a problem, there are ways around it.

  5. Marlon Thomas

    The best programmers plan the design of their program before even writing a single line of code on the computer. Teaching trainee programmers to plan out their design using pencil and paper is actually not as barmy as it sounds. It trains them to dry run their code mentally before actually implementing it on the computer and will make them better programmers in the long run. That said, exams to assess programming ability do not necessarily have to utilise pencil and paper – it is possible to use CBT-style assessments in a controlled exam room environment with auto-grading software that can check code input on the computer for syntax, logic and style errors.