Exam boards have been ordered to re-write GCSE maths papers amid concerns they could be too tough for some students.
There is a “significant risk” that assessments drawn up by three awarding bodies will be too difficult for the full range of pupils’ abilities, according to research by Ofqual.
This could lead to unreliable grading, the exams regulator warned.
Overall, three exam boards, OCR, Pearson and WJEC, have been told to re-jig papers to make them more accessible to all, not just the most able youngsters, while a fourth, AQA, has been told to look at how it can make its foundation papers (those aimed at less able students) more difficult.
New maths GCSEs are due to be introduced to schools and colleges from this September as part of a major overhaul started by the previous government, to toughen up the qualifications and better prepare teenagers for studying A-levels.
Ofqual, which has accredited new maths courses, announced plans to examine GCSE maths papers after concerns were raised last year about differences in the difficulty of sample assessments.
The findings revealed variations in the difficulty of papers, suggesting that in some cases, students would only need to score less than half marks to be awarded an A grade.
“There is a significant risk that all but AQA’s assessments will be too difficult for the full range of ability for the cohort for which the qualification is intended,” Ofqual’s report concludes. This is likely to prevent the reliable grading of students.
“The additional challenge will be beneficial for the most able students, but the assessments also need to support a positive experience for the rest of the cohort so as to ensure that all students become more confident and competent as mathematicians.”
As part of the research, thousands of students were asked to sit new sample maths papers.
Their average marks were very low compared with what would be expected in a real GCSE exam, the study found, with even those from the best performing schools scoring poorly.
It is difficult to tell how much of this is down to students’ lack of motivation, a lack of preparation and being unfamiliar with the style of the papers, and how much is due to the assessments being too difficult, it adds.
Ofqual said its analysis suggests the grade boundaries that would be set for these papers “would be much lower than ideal”.
“For example, the grade A boundaries for the (WJEC) Eduqas and Pearson higher tier papers were less than half marks. Low boundaries lead to unreliable grading because they are based on little evidence of what students know and can do, and they are likely to be close together such that small numbers of marks can make large differences to the grade achieved.”
OCR, Pearson and WJEC have been ordered to refine their higher papers - aimed at more able students - as well as their foundation papers, usually taken by students who are less able.
This could include simplifying the wording of questions or examining the demand of some questions.
Ms Stacey said: “What we can see is that for three of the boards, the way their questions are written make it too difficult for students to answer them and answer them well.
“So what we are saying to them is, because this qualification is designed for a broad spread of ability just as the current ones are now, you need to look at those questions that are targeted particularly at the less able or moderately able student and you need to ask yourself, firstly if you can make them more accessible to those students by looking at the way they are worded, the way they are expressed, the context in which you’re setting the maths, and yes, you need also to ask yourself whether you’ve got a sufficient spread of mathematical demand, again, so that we can be sure that these assessments can be graded well enough in 2017 and that students, teachers and parents can have confidence in the grades that students get.”
She said GCSE maths has been looked at in an unprecedented level of detail.
The AQA exam board has been told to toughen up the difficulty of its foundation paper.
AQA chief executive Andrew Hall said: “We’re pleased that Ofqual has recognised that our qualification works properly as an assessment - allowing us to set reliable grade boundaries which will ensure that students get the results they deserve.”
Cherry Ridgway of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: “The detailed level of scrutiny and the comparison between exam papers from different boards should give greater confidence in grade awarding for the new maths GCSE.
“However we are concerned that final decisions about the exams will not be made until June, considering that the syllabus will be taught from September. The content has been available for some time which has helped schools to plan, but this very short time scale is problematic for schools in making final decisions about which specification to offer from September.”