A level science: Assessment of practical skills

What has changed?

For JCQ examination boards in England (AQA, Edexcel and OCR) from and including the summer 2017 examination series, the assessment of practical skills in Biology, Chemistry and Physics has changed.

Your practical skills will be assessed in two ways.

1. In written papers: Both the AS and A level written examinations – for Biology, Chemistry and Physics – will include questions about the theory and application of practical skills.

These will contribute at least 15% of the total marks for each of these subjects.  The Greene’s practical courses do not include preparation for questions in the written papers but they will improve your understanding of the practical concepts covered.

2. The practical endorsement: With regard to the A level qualification, practical skills will also be directly assessed by Greene’s.  From the summer 2017 examination series you can be awarded a practical endorsement which will confirm that you have demonstrated mastery in relation to the practical aspects of your A level course.  This will be reported separately and will not contribute to the A level grade or carry points in the UCAS Tariff, though UCAS will provide information about these results to universities.  Award of the practical endorsement will be shown on your examination certificate.

Please note – AS level qualifications in Biology, Chemistry and Physics do not include the practical endorsement, so the AS grade does not include any direct assessment of your ability to use practical skills.  AS level qualifications -  like A level qualifications – will include questions about the theory and application of practical skills.

Please also note – AS level qualifications continue to be available as separate qualifications, but they no longer form part of the A level.

Both AS level and A level qualifications include questions – accounting for at least 15% of the marks – about the theory and application of practical skills in the written papers.

How will the practical endorsement be assessed?

The practical endorsement will be assessed using something called the Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC).  This requires that you can:

  • Follow written procedures independently and with accuracy
  • Apply investigative approaches and methods when using laboratory instruments and equipment
  • Safely use a range of practical equipment and materials
  • Accurately make and record observations
  • Research, references and reports

To earn the practical endorsement you will need to complete a minimum of 12 specified practical activities which will also be referenced in the final written examinations.  Your performance in these practical activities will assessed and will contribute to your separate practical endorsement result.  Additional practicals can be completed as evidence of competency in practical skills as required.

Yes, but what exactly are the Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC)

The arrangements for the assessment of practical skills are common to all examination boards in England (AQA, Edexcel and OCR).  These are called the Common Practical Assessment Criteria (CPAC).  The CPAC define the minimum standard required for the achievement of a “pass” grade which will appear on all examination certificates as a separately reported result, alongside the overall grade for the qualification – the “practical endorsement”.

You will need to complete a minimum of 12 specified practical activities; provide evidence of independent application of investigative approaches and methods to practical work; and keep an appropriate record of your practical work, including your assessed practical activities.  If you demonstrate the required standard across all the requirements of the CPAC you will receive a “pass” grade.  This will be assessed by Greene’s and the quality of the assessments made by Greene’s will be externally inspected.

In order to achieve a “pass” grade you will need to have met the following expectations:

1. Follow written procedures
a. Correctly follow instructions to carry out experimental techniques or procedures.

2. Apply investigative approaches and methods when using instruments and equipment
a. Correctly use appropriate instrumentation, apparatus and materials (including ICT) to carry out investigative activities, experimental techniques and procedures with minimal assistance or prompting.
b. Carry out techniques or procedures methodically, in sequence and in combination, identifying practical issues and making adjustments when necessary.
c. Identify and control significant quantitative variables where applicable, and plans approaches to take account of variables that cannot readily be controlled.
d. Select appropriate equipment and measurement strategies in order to ensure suitably accurate results.

3. Safely use a range of practical equipment and  materials
a. Identify hazards and assesses risks associated with these hazards, making safety adjustments as necessary, when carrying out experimental techniques and procedures in the lab or field.
b. Use appropriate safety equipment and approaches to minimise risks with minimal prompting.

4. Make and record observations
a. Make accurate observations relevant to the experimental or investigative procedure.
b. Obtain accurate, precise and sufficient data for experimental and investigative procedures and records this methodically using appropriate units and conventions.

5. Research, references and reports
a. Use appropriate software and/or tools to process data, carry out research and report findings.
b. Cite sources of information demonstrating that research has taken place, supporting planning and conclusions.

How does practical A level science help develop my skills for success at university?

Undertaking practical work at A level gives you important transferable skills that will help with your degree study and which include:

  • Observation
  • Analysing results
  • Evaluating your own work and that of others
  • Testing out theories and ideas which you have developed
  • Developing problem solving strategies
  • Developing team work and taking responsibility
  • Communicating ideas and results with peers and teachers
  • Developing confidence to learn independently and to question the world around you

Achievement of the new practical endorsement shows that you have demonstrated these skills.

Do I need the practical endorsement for my university application?

Many universities will require the practical endorsement as part of their admissions criteria for a wide range of courses.  When making a UCAS application on your behalf Greene’s is required to indicate whether or not you are predicted to pass the science practical assessment in the same way as the main A level exams.

“We will therefore require applicants who are offering one or more of these reformed A level science subjects in England to pass the practical skills assessment in addition to achieving the required grade(s) in the written examination(s).” Policy statement – University of Reading

From the university of Sheffield: “Practical skills are a crucial part of science education and the University of Sheffield will expect students to pass the practical element of any science A Level taken.”

And from the University of Southampton: “The University of Southampton believes that practical skills in the sciences are integral to a candidate’s understanding and appreciation of these subjects and it will require all applicants offering one or more of these subjects at A level to pass the practical skills assessment in addition to achieving the required grade(s) in the written examination(s).”

The University of Oxford clearly puts it: “If a practical component forms part of any of the A-levels taken, we expect candidates to have taken it and passed.”

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