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The administration of examinations for 15 to 19 year olds in England

Written evidence submitted by Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI)

Summary

1. Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) is an independent curriculum development body for mathematics, with over forty years of experience of designing syllabuses and exam specifications and associated teaching materials for A Level, O Level, GCSE, FSMQs, the Advanced Extension Award  and STEP.

2. We are convinced that the freedom to innovate must be preserved in order to ensure that examinations, and the associated curriculum, can develop over time to serve the changing needs of students and society.

3. Although the scope of the current inquiry does not extend to the design of particular current or future qualifications, we believe that possible changes to the system can only be analysed in the context of their effects on the qualifications that will be offered and on the resulting taught curriculum.

4. We recognise that the current administration of examinations is not perfect and that there are problems which need to be addressed and solved. It is suggested that having a single national Mathematics GCSE (and a single Mathematics A Level) would solve some of the problems. However, we believe that such a "solution" would effectively remove the impetus for curriculum development and raise the possibility of a descent to the lowest common denominator in terms of the richness of educational provision. We believe this will lead to a lowering of the standard of mathematics learned in our schools.

5. Accuracy in setting and administering examinations is best ensured by having awarding bodies which have long experience in examining and which also compete professionally with other awarding bodies. The recent, regrettable errors have produced a determined response from the awarding bodies to ensure accuracy and reliability.

6. Effective methods of regulation are needed to ensure comparability of standards between specifications. This requires a different model from the current Ofqual model. For example, an alternative model for regulation is suggested in section 11.3 of A World-class Mathematics Education for all our Young People (the Vorderman report).

7. Awarding bodies and those who set their examinations hold a privileged position. They should not be compromised by gaining financially from endorsing textbooks. Marketing should not trade on authors’ status as examiners.

8. A single awarding body with a national monopoly would have no incentive to hold down the cost of entering examinations. It is essential that the cost of entering examinations is manageable for schools and colleges.


The importance of curriculum development

9. There is a long and distinguished history of independent curriculum development in this country. In mathematics, SMP and, more recently, MEI took the lead and there have been other initiatives in science and technology such as Nuffield Science and Salters Chemistry. As a result many people in UK schools and colleges have benefited from a rich education.

10. It is essential that the school mathematics curriculum takes account of the need for students to be able to use mathematics to model real world situations. Developments in ICT will continue to change the way that mathematics is used in HE and in the workplace. This should be reflected in the school curriculum and the associated examinations. Consequently, there is a continuing need for curriculum innovation.

11. There is an urgent need for curriculum development in mathematics to ensure that suitable qualifications are available for an increased numbers of student to study appropriate mathematics between the ages of 16 and 18, in line with the recommendations of the Wolf Report, the ACME Mathematical Needs Project and the Vorderman report.

12. There is currently increasing freedom for schools to make choices about how they teach their students. In order for schools to make use of this freedom, for the benefit of their students and society, they need to have access to a variety of teaching materials and examinations. Better still, their teachers need to be able to contribute to the development of suitable teaching materials and examinations. That opportunity has historically been provided by independent curriculum development organisations.

13. Successful curriculum developments in the past have brought an overall vision for education to the integrated development of examination specifications and teaching materials. Such initiatives have provided valuable opportunities for teacher professional development and resulted in enhanced teaching and learning in the classroom.

14. Awarding bodies cannot conduct such curriculum development on their own. Their expertise is in the setting and administration of examinations. Awarding bodies working together with other organisations and individuals, including teachers, HE and employers, have been able to develop high standard curriculum materials for students.

15. If the number of awarding bodies responsible for mathematics was reduced to one, it would be essential to impose a statutory duty for that body to engage in curriculum development. There should be a statutory duty for such a body to offer a variety of specifications in major subjects, such as mathematics, and to offer specifications devised by responsible outside organisations.


One or more awarding bodies?

16. There is pressure on schools and teachers to ensure that students get good grades in mathematics. The emphasis on grade C, or better, at GCSE has led to some schools adopting practices which help the school to improve its position in performance tables without improving the overall mathematical understanding of its students. Some schools currently engage in the following practices.

· Entering students for more than one Mathematics GCSE examination at the same sitting.

· Early entry for GCSE when that is not in the best interests of students.

· Trying to find an "easier" specification.

· Giving additional attention to students at the C/D borderline at the expense of other students.

17. MEI recommends that the practice of entering students for more than one Mathematics GCSE at the same time be disallowed.

18. Awarding bodies need to gain sufficient market share in order to cover the costs of running a specification. When this is taken together with the desire of some teachers to find an easier specification, it can result in a downward pressure on standards. An effective regulatory system must address this concern.

19. Awarding bodies can compete with each other in a number of ways. Some of these are positive, bringing benefits for schools and students.

· Support for teachers and students

· Quality of administration

· Price

· Quality of examinations

· Providing a specification suited to the aspirations of the students or the philosophy of the centre

However, awarding bodies can also compete with each other by producing examinations which are perceived to be easier. An effective, transparent regulatory system should eliminate competition in this area.

20. There have been some recent errors in examinations and suitable checks need to be made to minimise the possibility of future errors. There have always been errors in examinations but they have not always received widespread publicity. However, the awarding bodies responsible for general qualifications have a great deal of experience in setting examinations successfully. Their long term involvement in the process and competition from other awarding bodies ensures that they take the quality of their provision seriously. A monopoly would reduce standards because it would remove the possibility of schools going elsewhere if the quality of examinations and administration were inadequate.

Regulation

21. Much of the emphasis of the current regulatory framework, as applied to GCSE and GCE Level Mathematics, lies in ensuring similarity of content between different specifications. However, there is an advantage in having specifications which emphasise different aspects of best practice. This allows schools to use syllabuses which meet their students’ needs and aspirations and so inspires more students to continue with STEM subjects.

22. The regulatory system must ensure comparability at various levels:

a. between the different awarding bodies offering examinations on similar specifications for the same qualifications in the same subjects;

b. between different specifications for the same qualification in a subject;

c. between qualifications at the same level in different subjects.

23. At the moment regulation definitely fails in 22c. There is plenty of evidence that some subjects are more harshly graded than others. For example, the 2008 CEM Centre Report Relative Difficulty of Examinations in Different Subjects

http://www.cemcentre.org/attachments/SCORE2008report.pdf

24. The STEM subjects fare particularly badly and this makes them unattractive options for any but the strongest students. It is nothing short of a national scandal that this situation has been allowed to persist over many years, and particularly since the introduction of accountability measures that are based on the assumption that all subjects are, grade for grade, of equal difficulty.

We fear the possibility that different specifications for the same qualification will be disallowed on the grounds that it is difficult to ensure comparability, while completely ignoring the much bigger challenge of ensuring inter-subject comparability. It is a matter of national importance for the regulatory authorities to develop a methodology that better allows comparison of standards in different subjects.

When that is done, it will then be relatively easy to adapt it to different specifications in the same subject.

25. A key element in all this will be the use of high calibre people with appropriate experience and expertise. Such people need sufficient expertise to ensure that learning outcomes are adequately addressed and that difficult topics are not avoided in examinations. The current system of assessment objectives does not work.

The commercial activities of awarding bodies

26. Since the content of all the GCSE Mathematics specifications from 1999 to 2009 was identical, following the wording of the National Curriculum, any GCSE Mathematics textbook could have been used to teach any specification. However, there was a marked preference for using an awarding body endorsed book. This may well be linked to using the examiners as authors and publicising the fact; there is a thinly veiled message "This is how you get the marks on this examination". We believe this practice to be profoundly wrong.

27. Poor mathematics textbooks focus on techniques rather than concepts; they do not adequately address applications, mathematical thinking and real understanding. Their success in the marketplace is all to do with the pressure for examination results with the associated perception that they are more important than students’ understanding of mathematics.

28. Where an examiner is an author or co-author of a textbook, publishers should be disallowed from mentioning the fact in the book or in any of their publicity. Similarly, awarding bodies should be disallowed from publicising the fact.

29. It is helpful for awarding bodies to indicate to teachers which books are suitable for use when preparing candidates for a specification. However, awarding bodies should not gain financially by endorsing textbooks, nor should their logos appear on any textbooks.

November 2011

Prepared 8th December 2011