David McEwan – Curriculum Manager

Read time: 4 minutes

I’ve been lucky enough to attend Mathsconf 15 and the MEI conference recently, where I had some great conversations about our new AS and A-levels. I spoke with teachers about their experiences of the first year and heard really positive things: it’s a pleasure to now be teaching real mathematics and we’ve managed to capture the spirit of the new qualification.

So now seems like a good time to sit back and take stock of our first series: have we achieved what we set out to? Have we given students the best possible chance to show us what they can do?

We wanted to create exams that were consistent with the style and approach of our practice papers. We’re really pleased that we’ve achieved that and, looking at how marking’s gone, our live papers allowed students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge through questions that rewarded actual maths.

Obviously we’re dealing with a much smaller entry size as we’re only one year into teaching and the previous qualification is still going. It’s something we were cautious about, but we’ve been able to gauge some really encouraging things that have worked well for students.

Seek out the potential: rewarding correct maths

We were really pleased with our new mark scheme and, like all good ideas, it seems obvious with hindsight.

  • The left-hand column describes what the mark is for and the right-hand column gives an example.
  • The marks described can be awarded at any point in an answer.
  • It allows students to get credit for what they know and, more importantly, for trying to do maths.

Our Chair, Dan Rogan’s guide tells you more about how it’s changed the way we mark and how we’ve implemented it in our assessments so far.

Our key principle in marking is to consistently reward when we see students doing correct maths.

With this and the new problem solving questions in mind, we’ve seen students break it down into three stages:

  1. Experiment with approaches and make mistakes.
  2. Select an approach and do detailed working (then maybe return back to stage 1).
  3. Finish an approach and reach a final conclusion.

Students should be able to try out an approach and, if it doesn’t work out, try another one.

But what if they showed correct maths in attempt 1 and some different, also correct, maths in attempt 2? Then we marked all of their attempts and credited them appropriately – without awarding the same mark twice, obviously!

And what if a student provided two correctly worked (but different) solutions? It’s clear the student wasn’t sure which method to use. We credited their skills and knowledge while acknowledging their lack of a clear unambiguous solution. This is where our tightened mark scheme guidance has really been of benefit – we’ve been able to mark wide varieties of methods and maintained the rigour at the end for final accuracy marks if there’s a contradiction.

It’s a structure that we’ve been able to reliably put in place across all of our exams and that’s why it’s been a highlight of the series.

It’s the little things

We were also really pleased that it seems our efforts to minimise the wordiness of questions, consistent use of command words and cleaner layouts have paid off for students. We saw students’ responses laid out clearly and where they were supposed to be.

We say it a lot, but it’s our job to make sure it’s maths we’re testing, not language skills and, having seen the successes of these design improvements at GCSE, we’re more sure than ever now that they’re also relevant at A-level.

And it doesn’t stop there

It’s been quite the journey from spec development to this point. And now we’re starting to look at what we can learn from this series into the next. Next week we head into Awarding and, after that, we’ll look carefully at the data for each question, feeding those results back into our next live assessments.

I’m proud to be able to see a clear evolution where we have improved our use of language, layout and style. That’s something we’ll continue to work on from one year to the next, building on feedback from the exams, from teachers and from our Expert Panel.