Ofqual refuses to change A-level maths boundaries after investigation

An Ofqual investigation into the grade boundaries for A-level maths has found there is no reason to re-visit grades given in 2018, despite considerably lower grade boundaries last year.

The exams watchdog said it would investigate “unusual” changes in the grade boundaries in August. Grade boundaries for both Edexcel and OCR exam boards were leaked ahead of results day. For Edexcel, pupils needed to score just 14 per cent to pass the subject.

The findings, published today, reveal that the maths A-level exam sat by pupils this summer were “more difficult” and “more demanding” than the exam sat in 2018 and the grade boundaries were “substantially lower”.

The removal of the opportunity to re-sit AS exams had also widened the achievement gap between pupils, the investigation found.

The regulator accepted there was a “discontinuity in grading standards” but said this was “inevitable” because of the unique element of A-level maths that means some pupils take it a year early before sitting further maths.

Ofqual asked A-level maths teachers to judge the difficulty of individual questions from both 2018 and 2019 and analysed how pupils did on those questions. The findings suggested “the 2019 papers were more difficult and therefore that grade boundaries ought to have been lower to take account of that.”

However, Ofqual also noted the reforms to A-levels, where they became linear qualifications without the opportunity to re-sit AS units, had an impact on the need to lower the grade boundary in 2019.

The report read: “Our analysis suggests that the gap between the achievement of Year 12 and Year 13 students has got wider in the reformed specifications, largely as a result of the move to linear qualifications and hence the removal of the opportunity to re-sit AS units in year 13.”

Ofqual said the need to compensate for the linear exams shift and removal of the chance to re-sit explains “about half the difference” in the 2018 and 2019 grade boundaries.

Also, in 2018, the majority of pupils taking the reformed A-level maths exam were pupils in Year 12 before they went on to further maths.

Maths is unique among A-level subjects, as some more able pupils sit their exam at the end of Year 12 in order to progress onto further maths in Year 13, while others sit the exam at the end of the two years.

Ofqual said these pupils “tended to be the very able students” who generally achieved “higher grades than the substantial majority of year 13 students”.

This summer, most pupils taking the qualification were in year 13 – therefore less likely to achieve the very top grades, meaning the grade boundaries needed to be lower.

Ofqual also noted that not all pupils sat the reformed qualifications in 2018, and said changing the grade boundaries of the reformed qualification to make them lower would “introduce an unfair advantage” to the 2,000 pupils who sat that exam, compared to the 1,200 Year 12 pupils who sat the legacy qualification.


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