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Setting standards in the new A level maths qualifications

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs

This summer we will see the first awards of the new A level maths qualifications. These were available for schools to teach from September 2017, so they would not normally be available to enter after only one year. When we consulted on the rules for these new qualifications, schools and colleges told us that they had previously entered very able students (often those also studying further maths) at the end of year 12. We therefore agreed to make this qualification available at the end of the first year of teaching.

We knew that this would very likely mean a small entry of very able students, and that the approach to awarding would need to take that into account, to be fair to these students. To help us in this, we wanted to know whether we could expect a similar number of students to enter, or whether schools and colleges have changed their approach for the reformed qualifications. Would the schools who previously entered year 12 students be doing the same thing this year, or something different?

To get a sense of what schools and colleges were doing, we sent a survey via the maths subject associations to over 2,000 schools/colleges taking A level maths. We asked how many students were being entered at the end of year 12, the reasons for entering or not entering in 2017, and the reasons for any change in their approach.

We had responses from 500 schools/colleges. That’s about a quarter of all those we contacted. We can’t assume that the other 75% would have responded in a similar way, so we are being cautious in drawing any conclusions. But nevertheless, it is really useful to get a sense of what schools and colleges are planning. Here are some headlines:

Are schools and colleges entering year 12 students for A level maths this year?

20% of schools/colleges told us that they entered year 12 students in 2017 and planned to enter them in 2018, while 28% told us that they had entered year 12 students in 2017 but did not plan to enter them in 2018. 5% had not entered year 12 students in 2017 but were planning to do it in 2018. (The remaining 46% did not enter year 12 students in 2017 and were not planning to enter in 2018.)

Why have some changed their approach?

The most common reasons given for not entering year 12 students this year were changes in the way teaching was structured over the two year course, changes in their school’s exam entry policy (in particular no year 12 entry), and uncertainty over the first exams.

A few schools/colleges cited concerns that only very able students would be entered and so their students would be disadvantaged. I’d like to reassure you that this will not be the case.

We know that the students who take maths at the end of year 12 tend to be those who are also taking further maths, and so the grade profile of these students is skewed towards the top grades, much more so than for the overall A level maths cohort.

When the exam boards set the standards in the summer, they will be aware of that. In the new A levels we have previously said that exam boards will carry forward standards from the previous qualification so that, if the cohort remains broadly the same, we would expect national results to be broadly similar.

Clearly, A level maths this summer is an example of where the cohort will not be broadly the same, as most students will still be taking the previous version of the qualification. So we have been discussing with exam boards the best way to make sure that this summer’s small cohort of new A level maths students is not unfairly disadvantaged by being the first to sit these new qualifications. Predictions that will be used to guide the awards will be based not on 18-year-old students (as for other A levels this summer) but on 17-year-old students. That way we are comparing like with like, to make sure we are fair to this year’s cohort. And, just like in other reformed subjects, senior examiners will scrutinise student work at the predicted grade boundaries. But the changes are likely to mean that the results for the new A level maths qualifications look very different to those for the legacy A level maths qualifications, reflecting the different ability profiles of the two cohorts.

That leads me to another word of caution in interpreting results in the summer. If, as we expect, the students entering the new A level maths qualifications are the very able students, then we might not see very many students achieving the lower grades. That might mean that exam boards don’t get much feedback on how well the papers perform for less able students. I would always urge caution in making assumptions about future grade boundaries from one set of papers, but I would urge even more caution in this case, as a result of the unusual cohort this summer.

So thank you to all those who responded to our survey. It’s given us a sense of the likely changes in schools, and the reasons for those changes. It has informed our discussions with the exam boards over how we set standards in these new qualifications, and it provides helpful context for those involved in the awards this summer. All that will help us make sure we are fair to this year’s students.

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  1. Comment by John posted on

    Thanks for the update, this is very helpful.

    I'm wondering what the distribution of marks will look like, if the results of the survey you conducted are reasonably close to the actual number of students sitting the exams this year. As you say, the grade profile will be skewed towards to the top end, and that the performance of last year's 17 year olds taking A Level maths will be used to decide on the awarding. I'm wondering how is this actually going to be carried out. With last year's year 12 cohort, they needed at least 480 UMS (out of 600), with at least 180 UMS (out of 200) in the C3 and C4 A2 modules, to get an A*. Which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. So how will their results be used in the decision of this year's awarding, exactly? UMS is of course not the same as raw marks, and wasn't quite as simple as "240/300 marks overall for an A*" last year, so I'm wondering what data they will actually use. I just don't quite understand how the exam boards are going to arrive at the grade boundaries for the top grades, when they see the performance of last year's (similar) cohort.

    Furthermore, according to the survey, there are going to be approximately 25-30% fewer candidates, thus making the cohort even smaller. What effect will this have on awarding? Particularly as there were more who were entered last year.

    Are there any statistics regarding the performance of 17 year olds, who sat A Level maths last year (and possibly previously)?

    Many thanks.

    • Replies to John>

      Comment by chrisshadforth posted on

      Thanks John.
      The data that exam boards will use is based on the prior attainment (GCSE results) of the students taking the new A level. If the cohort this summer is, as we expect, more able, then they are very likely to have higher mean GCSE grades than a normal cohort. As a result, the predicted percentages of students at the higher grades will be higher. Exam boards will use the predictions, but they will also rely on senior examiners to review student work at the proposed grade boundaries, to make sure it is an acceptable standard for a grade A. This is the approach that we have taken in all new A levels and GCSEs, so that students are not disadvantaged by being the first to sit these new qualifications. And if the entry is relatively small, then exam boards will treat the predictions with caution and rely more heavily on the senior examiner judgements.

      • Replies to chrisshadforth>

        Comment by John posted on

        Right... But what about the data from 17 year olds who sat the A Level maths from last year? How will that work exactly? In the "comparing like with like" article, linked on this page, it states " If we want to predict the performance of 16 year-olds, then exam boards will look back at the performance of 16 year-olds in previous years."

        Also, please could you explain what is meant by senior examiners reviewing the student's work?


  2. Comment by John posted on

    Also, will the fact that this is a new specification affect the awarding at all?

  3. Comment by Daniel posted on

    OCR MEI has always been known to be much more harder than all the other exam boards. What will Ofqual do this summer to make sure OCR MEI meet the difficulty of other exam boards such as Edexcel as i have seen students who are complaining about their teachers picking the hardest exam board which is OCR MEI.

  4. Comment by Keith posted on

    The new reformed A Level is awful. Far too time consuming, yet we do not have the extra lessons to deliver the course. 2019 will see epic failure rates in Maths.
    The old syllabus was perfectly timed. To raise standards all you and the idiots at DOE had to do was raise grade boundaries/ ensure exam boards are setting fair papers. Schools are now faced with an impossible task of completing the syllabus.
    A huge shame especially since we are in short supply of Maths specialists.

  5. Comment by Shazia posted on

    I would like to report the Further Maths A Level has been dumbed down significantly in comparison to the legacy course. This is surprising considering the A Level has been increased in difficulty.
    Are you aware that for Edexcel if students study CP1, CP2 and choose the options Decision 1 and Further Mech/Stats 1 then they will never study conic sections, reducible differential equations, Taylor series, cross product, further loci. These were all on the old specification.
    It does not matter which combination is chosen, it will always end up easier than the legacy course. Most schools are avoiding Further Pure 1 which results in the loss of the above mentioned topics. Disaster.

    • Replies to Shazia>

      Comment by Hannah Bradley posted on

      The structure of A level mathematics and further mathematics has changed and the relationship between them is different. This is partly as a result of the move to linear A levels and also because of the introduction of 100% core content for all A level mathematics qualifications. The content for A level mathematics and further mathematics was produced, consulted upon and published by the DfE – see here.

      The core content for further mathematics accounts for 50% of the qualification. It has been designed to introduce complex numbers and matrices, fundamental mathematical ideas with wide applications in mathematics, engineering, physical sciences and computing. The core content is focussed on pure mathematics and does not include the topics you mention, but they can be included in the optional areas. The content document (see link above), allows for these options to build from the applied content in A level mathematics, introduce new applications, extend further the core content for further mathematics, or involve some combination of these. This additional content must be at the same level of demand as the prescribed core. Exam boards may include the topics you mention but they are not compelled to do so.

      The criteria for the legacy further mathematics qualifications required there to be two units of pure mathematics but did not specify the topics to be covered. The content varies across the specifications offered by the different exam boards.

  6. Comment by Steve posted on

    What is the overall performance of this year's small cohort of A Level mathematics candidates (around 2000 students from memory)?