Biology A Level: International Rescue?

This blog has been at least a year in the making. In fact ever since 2013 when we decided to change our A level exam board to an International A level, I have tried to keep a check of our rationale for doing so. After giving a talk at a Cambridge International Examinations seminar at the end of November I had written down a long list of reasons and originally planned to post these during the Christmas holiday, but life events rather overtook me. What follows below is a précis of the reasons for leaving AQA and the other domestic exam boards for the exotic climes of an international qualification. As such it focuses on the perceived benefits of the change; I aim to redress this balance, should I need to, in the future with information about limitations. Although it was originally me, as HoD, that initiated and steered a course towards International A levels, my department were very much behind the decision from the off. In fact due to the huge uncertainty of what exactly the new Science A level specifications were going to include and how the practical work would be assessed we “jumped ship” early – officially deciding back in September 2013. Students at Sixth From are now studying the “International” A level from Cambridge International Examinations.

International rescue?

International rescue? (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

The decision making process was made easier by our disenchantment with EMPA and ISA “practical examinations”. Students constantly performed well below their attainment in theory papers. In fact with a little (very lightweight, unreliable, insignificant, etc) statistical analysis I demonstrated that on average our Biology A level students were performing one and a half grades below their theory paper attainment; and this is from pupils who carried out practical work almost every week and were scoring close to full UMS in the theory papers. The International A level offers a “proper” practical examination, one beyond any suspicions of “interference” so that students are awarded marks that correspond to their performance in theory papers. I could probably write a whole post on my total disillusionment with the proposed changes to domestic Science A level practicals… I will leave that for another time, suffice to say I am disappointed by the approach of the domestic exam boards and dismayed that practical assessment will not form part of the overall A level grade. More reasons are shared below and are taken from notes I used when discussing International A levels at a CIE seminar held at Somerset House in November. It is a fairly comprehensive list of the motivations behind why I think the award would suit pupils at our school:

  • Natural progression following on from the principles of IGCSE, which we teach at Key Stage 4.
  • Syllabus is more thorough; the content manages to balance a broad range of topics and goes into an appropriate depth of knowledge. In particular it favours breadth of knowledge over “sound bites”.
  • Assessment is not modular, encouraging students to think about the “big ideas in Biology”. This links directly to the syllabus; it is not divided into topics that are then examined in separate papers.
  • Encourages more exhaustive learning and rewards those who work hard and understand the topics.
  • The emphasis is on students carrying out and planning practical work. Experiments are present throughout the two year course…
  • …even more importantly these experiments are formally assessed, thus rewarding students who have grasped basic practical skills. This maintains the significance of actually having to do practicals properly in the classroom whilst learning the course and removes any suspicions of interference. Pupils therefore are awarded marks that match their ability and correspond to attainment in theory papers.
  • Grades are criterion-referenced.
  • Better preparation for university, particularly if students plan to study a biology-related degree.

As stated in my introduction I will be revisiting this list and possibly adding more to it. I also want to share our experiences of actually teaching the qualification as well as any problems we encounter. Perhaps it will prove to be our International Rescue, but for now I am pleased to type: “FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE. THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!”.

Header image taken from Flickr.


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