Exam-Only Computer Science GCSE Assessment

If you are a student or parent thinking about whether Computer Science GCSE is a good choice for you or your child, you may have heard about the discussions that have been taking place regarding coursework in this subject. The topic was bought to public attention in 2017 when it was found that both students and teachers had not stuck to the rules designed to ensure the assessment of the coursework was fair.

This raised questions about the practicality of the approach for assessing the programming component which had been in place for most versions of the GCSE computer Science exam. The process involved students submitting a project that was supposed to be prepared “under controlled conditions.”

It turns out that conditions were harder to control than expected. Ofqual, the body for regulating these matters claimed:

There is evidence that some of this year’s tasks have been posted to online forums and collaborative programming sites, contrary to exam board rules.

Detailed solutions have been provided in many cases, and some of these posts have been viewed thousands of times.”

As a result of in-depth consultation the decision has finally been reached that from 2022, programming skills will assessed via examination only.

This move has provoked mixed reactions from teachers tasked with delivering the curriculum for GCSE Computer Science and preparing students for their exams. Many feel it was a bad move and claim that the new approach is unrealistic in terms of preparing students for the “real world” of programming. Others are relieved that what they consider the messiness and ambiguity of the coursework-based approach is now over.

One point that I think is important to consider is that project based learning has been shown to be extremely effective, and there is justified concern that the benefits of this approach could now be lost. However this doesn’t have to be the case, as much of the work leading up to the final exam can still be done in the context of meaningful programming projects of varying degrees of complexity.

Probably because of the wide geographical spread of students taking them, the IGCSE Computer Science exams for Cambridge and Edexcel already assess programming without coursework. They each use a very different approach and both of these are likely to be of interest to the other exam boards in designing the exam-based assessment which has now been decided on.

Cambridge Assessment International Education Use the approach of having pre-release materials, which basically constitute a mini-project, aspects of which form the basis of some of the exam questions. This approach maintains the benefits of project based learning and has proven to be effective for several years now.

Edexcel have chosen a different approach with a computer-based exam where solution files are sent to the examiner. This seems like an innovative solution to assessing students on actual programming activities. However, their exam is quite new and it’s too early to draw many conclusions about the effectiveness of this approach.

It is seems likely that other boards will use one of these existing models to inform their decisions on how to implement Ofqual’s ruling. It remains to be seen how this will play out in terms of students’ performance and the overall picture of how well UK-based exams prepare the next generation for success in the digital marketplace.


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