Ofqual reports on difficulty of new 'fat maths' GCSEs

Ofqual has analysed the difficulty of the new maths GCSEs, as part of its 2017 summer exam series report, and found minor but not “substantive” differences between exam boards.

When the new 9-1 maths qualifications were accredited in 2015, concerns were raised about the level of difficulty of the new “big fat maths” curriculum leading the regulator to promise a review after the exams.

The regulator investigated the difficulty of live GCSE qustions this year with those in the sample assessments using independent experts to compare the questions.

It found that for the foundation tier, the sample tests and live exams were “highly comparable”.

Maths papers from AQA and Pearson were found to be of a similar level of difficulty, while WJEC Eduqas and OCR’s questions were slightly less difficult in the final exam than in the samples.

Ofqual also found that the spread of questions increased in the summer 2017 assessments, with more easy questions available.

“This may have helped to make the assessments more accessible for the lowest-achieving candidates,” the regulator said.

For the higher tier paper, WJEC Eduqas’ summer 2017 assessment was found to be more difficult than the sample, while OCR’s assessment was easier.

However, Ofqual said: “The differences are not substantive, and can easily be accounted for in awarding with small adjustments to the grade boundaries.”

Overall, the higher tier summer assessments were slightly more difficult than the sample assessments; the opposite of the foundation tier.

Ofqual said: “Within each exam board, the summer 2017 assessments were fairly close in median difficulty to their respective sample assessments, with the largest difference seen for the WJEC Eduqas higher tier summer 2017 assessment.”

The regulator also examined problem-solving questions from the summer 2017 papers, as this was a focus of the reformed GCSE maths curriculum.

Problem-solving questions were found to be harder than the other types of question on average.

For the foundation tier, WJEC Eduqas and OCR had the hardest problem-solving questions by a small margin. These questions were “clearly estimated to be amongst the very hardest items on the foundation tier”.

For the higher tier, there was a bigger difference between the exam boards. WJEC Eduqas’ and Pearson’s papers were slightly more difficult, partly due to their problem solving questions being more challenging than those of AQA and OCR.

“This suggests that much of the difference in estimated overall difficulty could arise from AO3 items [problem solving questions], particularly for Pearson,” Ofqual said.

The investigation also found that AQA “may lack stretching AO3 items”, while WJEC Eduqas and Pearson “include some high estimated difficulty AO3 items which are contributing to their slightly higher overall difficulty”.

Read more on Ofqual’s 2017 summer exam series report 

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