I regret the extra stress caused to teachers and pupils

A tiny minority added to the stress of exam season during the breach of Pearson Edexcel's A-level maths paper, writes the head of the exam board

Sharon Hague

Sharon Hague, of Edexcel exam board, has issued a warning to cheats after an A-level paper was leaked

This summer, millions of students sat their A levels after two years of hard work, supported by their parents and teachers. As a parent myself, I know the intense pressure that is felt by all involved. This year’s examinations were clouded by the breach of our A level maths paper and I am regretful that this caused an already stressful time for teachers, students and parents to become even more so.

Ensuring exam fairness and security are guiding principles for Pearson Edexcel, and as we carry out our final quality assurance checks of this summer’s results I would like to take this opportunity to provide a full update on how we ensured fairness for all.

As a result of our own monitoring efforts, we were able to confirm that two heavily blacked out questions were circulating on the social media platform Twitter ahead of the exam on Friday 14 June.

Based on the evidence available to us at that point we had to decide quickly whether or not to replace the paper – or reschedule the exam. It was too late to replace papers and rescheduling would have caused significant additional stress and disruption for tens of thousands of students across the country.

Working on this basis, we proceeded, guided always by our overriding principle of fairness and our capability to ensure it for all students. We knew that our expert assessment team would have the ability to perform detailed statistical analysis once marking was completed to ensure no one was disadvantaged.

I know that there were mixed views about whether to retain or remove the two questions that were shared on social media. Having now marked these questions we’ve made the decision not to remove them. This is because through our analysis we found that performance on these questions was as expected for the overall cohort. In the limited instances where we discovered anomalies – for example students scoring particularly well on these questions versus the rest of the paper – we have taken these students out of any further statistical analysis to determine the grade boundaries and have taken a closer look at their performance.

Subsequently it soon emerged that questions from the whole exam paper had been circulated by some students within closed social media networks. To be clear: our investigations team was not alerted to this or indeed able to confirm it until after the exam had been sat. Why? We get sent lots of images of question papers around exams like maths and the vast majority of these are hoaxes designed to get clicks on social media. In this instance, our investigations team was able to confirm a number of authentic images, leading us to take immediate, swift action.

We understand there has been speculation about the extent to which questions were available on social media channels ahead of the exam and therefore you may question how we will be able to mark papers to ensure fair results. While there is speculation that exposure was broader, it is critical that we base judgements on this issue on hard evidence rather than speculation. 

We were able to narrow the source of the breach down to one specific centre. We worked fast to interview the individuals involved, to understand the origin of the breach and to exclude their marks from results. Everyone we interviewed agreed to let us examine their phones with them as part of our own investigation and the police were also able to seize equipment from two people that they subsequently arrested. This police case is ongoing and we hope will end in a criminal prosecution.

There are currently 78 students whose results we have withheld while we complete our malpractice procedures with them.

But how can we be sure that everyone is treated fairly in the marking process? Because we have powerful tools at our disposal to uncover cheaters and those who try to seize an unfair advantage.

Our tools include being able to look at student performance on individual questions on each paper to understand their relative difficulty. We are then able to look at the performance of individual students on each question to see whether their performance was unexpected.

Measures such as these give us the data to be able to ensure that we issue fair results, and also take action where there is evidence of any individual attempting to undermine the system.

We know taking exams can be a stressful time and we are aware that a lot of students have been saying that our A-level maths paper 2 was really hard. When we set papers, we always ensure that we set a fair assessment that appropriately tests mathematical ability across the whole paper. Of course paper difficulty can vary slightly from one year to another, and that’s why grade boundaries do vary slightly from one year to another, so that we can ensure that students get the grade that they deserve. We want to reassure you that independent experts have analysed the papers and confirmed paper 2 was a fair and valid paper, testing across the ability range and the course curriculum.

We commit to updating you more on this issue when results are published. However, listening to feedback we have already published online all the mark schemes for our qualifications, including for this paper. In addition, we’ve also published the specification mapping document, so students and teachers can see what the questions were testing directly from the specification.

We do appreciate that the experience of sitting this paper, for some students, was not what they had expected in terms of the perceived level of difficulty. For example, we appreciate that the first two questions were more challenging than we typically expect initial questions to be. However, we have reviewed student performance and students of all abilities have been able to access marks across the paper. We also know that the sample assessment materials were more helpful preparing students for the summer 2018 exam than the summer 2019 exams.

Going forward, we will be looking to make some adjustments to our papers to improve students’ experience of sitting our exams.

It is regrettable a tiny number of people added to the stress of this year’s exams but every student should be confident that we mark and award to ensure fair results for all. The principle of fairness and our capability to ensure it is our guiding star, guiding everything we do, and it always will be.

Sharon Hague is senior vice president of UK schools at Pearson

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