Ofqual seeks to ensure all things are equal in maths

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
It asks schools to test new GCSEs amid fears over `easy' paper

Ofqual is asking schools to put their pupils through a series of extra mock exams as it seeks to quell the controversy over standards in new maths GCSEs.

The qualifications regulator has been under huge pressure since a row blew up over allegations that some papers it has accredited are too easy. The Edexcel and OCR exam boards have complained that AQA's specimen maths paper is not challenging enough and ministers have let it be known they are "absolutely furious" that Ofqual has not done more to prevent what they fear could become a "race to the bottom".

Now TES has learned that Ofqual is turning to schools for a solution. It has written asking if they would be prepared to take part in "research into the reformed GCSE mathematics qualifications, looking specifically at the difficulty and demand of the new assessments".

The watchdog wants schools to submit Year 11 pupils for sample 90-minute tests from each of the three big exam boards.

But Sue Pope, who chairs the general council of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, described the way the watchdog had handled the accreditation of new maths GCSEs as "shocking".

"I think what they want is to be able to say, `Oh look, teachers have predicted these kind of grades and, look, they got them on all three exams'," she said. "But actually what we know is they are likely to get very different performance from the different exams because of the way they have been designed."

Ofqual has given schools until today to say if they want to participate in the study. It will involve pupils taking the tests in "normal lesson time" but under exam conditions.

The watchdog said schools would benefit from having the tests marked and would receive feedback on pupils' performance. But it acknowledged that because "the examinations relate to the reformed GCSE maths qualification, there will be some content that pupils are not likely to be fully prepared for".

Time is short because the reformed maths GCSEs, with extra tougher content, are due to be taught from September.

Some exam boards fear they will lose business because of the apparent ease of the specimen AQA paper Ofqual has accredited. OCR has called on the watchdog to start again with a completely new set of specimen papers from all boards. But Ofqual has said there is no need for any withdrawal or amendment of papers "at this stage".

Some in the maths community fear that by the time Ofqual has analysed the results from its mock exams it will be too late to make any changes.

In 2007, when new maths GCSEs were introduced, Dr Pope was national lead officer for maths at Ofqual's predecessor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. She said: "We had [the specimen papers] all in and we didn't start accrediting any of them until we were clear what we were trying to achieve, where we were trying to get to.

"So the feedback we gave meant that at the end of the day the specimen papers were comparable in demand. To not even have comparable sample specimen materials is just shocking. It is quite, quite shocking."

The row over the sample papers has prompted the government to reconsider introducing single exam boards for each subject so that competition cannot affect standards. A Department for Education source told TES that this was a "perfect example" of standards being lowered "for the goal of securing a greater market share" - an argument rejected by the boards.

An Ofqual spokesperson said: "We are conducting a number of research strands as part of our work on GCSE reform. Large-scale testing of new maths papers on students is part of that research programme."

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