More than sixty thousand Year 8 students sat the Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) in November. The University of New England provided the venue and facilities for one of the four key marking stations in New South Wales.
ESSA is used as a diagnostic tool to obtain information for teachers, students and parents about the level of achievement and the needs of individual students in science. It is compulsory for students in Year 8 who attend government schools in NSW to take the exam and it can also be accessed by Catholic and private schools. ESSA relates directly to the state science syllabus for Years 7-10. The results are therefore applicable and relevant to the topics being taught by teachers in the classroom.
UNE's Professor John Pegg, Director of the National Centre of Science, Information and Communication Technology, and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SIMERR), and former Deputy Director Associate Professor Debra Panizzon, have been working with the NSW Department of Education since their involvement in the starting of the test back in 2005. Their work, based on a federally funded Australian Research Council grant, provided the structure of the ESSA system. 'We worked with the state government on the science learning framework; how to generate appropriate items for the tests and then how to mark the extended question component most accurately' he said.
The test consists of a 16-page colour stimulus magazine and a 20-page booklet containing 75 short answer questions and three extended response tasks. The short answers are electronically scanned while specially trained science teachers mark the extended answers. Responses are scanned in colour into a central computer in Sydney and become available for marking on computers in designated areas. Students are given a score based on the depth and quality of their knowledge and understanding.
In 2007, the test was marked by over 150 teachers in Sydney. 'This year for the first time, as well as marking being undertaken in Sydney, more than 30 country teachers are assessing ESSA scripts at work stations in Wagga, Bathurst and here at UNE in Armidale. It means local teachers gain valuable experience in marking a state-wide test without having to travel to, or live in, Sydney', Professor Pegg said.
Sam Virtue, a teacher at Walcha Central, is one of the six markers based at the UNE station. 'Being in a regional area you sometimes feel you may miss out on certain opportunities, so this experience is fantastic. I can see for myself how the marking process works, and then share my new knowledge with my fellow teachers back at school', she said.
'The teachers received specialist training on Saturday before beginning the marking sessions which take place over 5 days from 4pm-9pm. To ensure accuracy, 20 per cent of the tests are double marked and every hour a common script is put through to help senior markers gauge whether the marking team is on track' said Professor Pegg.
'Regional marking stations help create a core of science teachers in rural areas who gain experience with sophisticated marking approaches and it helps them to better understand the problems students face in learning science. Over time, this activity will greatly enhance the skill levels of rural science teachers and as a consequence help improve further the learning potential of rural students in science', he said.