Pressure mounts in GCSE reform

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Teachers say time is running out for the long-promised maths overhaul. Warwick Mansell reports

Another exam fiasco is looming over plans for radical changes to maths GCSE, teachers warned this week.

With less than a year to go before hundreds of thousands of teenagers begin courses for the new GCSEs, the Government's exam regulator has yet to decide what form the tests should take.

Subject associations have described the reform as chaotic and are calling for the proposals to be put on hold until proper trials have taken place.

The controversy centres around moves, supported in principle by most in the maths community, to change the structure of maths GCSEs.

At present, pupils can enter maths at one of three levels of difficulty, or "tiers": a higher tier, with a top grade of A*; intermediate, in which pupils can score B at best; and foundation, where the top mark is a D.

Last year's Smith report for the Government on the problems facing maths was scathing about the exam, criticising the fact that pupils entered for the lowest tier had no chance of achieving a C grade.

Ministers are now committed to introducing a new GCSE from next year which would have only two levels: foundation, which would have a C as the top grade, and higher.

But its design has been plagued by controversy. For the past three summers, the OCR exam board has tried out a version of the new exam, with foundation pupils taking an easy and intermediate paper, and higher pupils an intermediate and difficult paper.

However, the design has led to pupils achieving high grades on the basis of very low percentages on the hardest paper.

This spring, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority unveiled an alternative design for the exam, which was trialled this summer.

It would see foundation pupils taking two easier papers, while those entered for the higher tier take two harder ones.

The QCA, which will advise ministers next month on which approach to take, had an evaluation carried out on the two models by academics at London university's institute of education.

Brief findings were presented to maths teachers at a meeting last week.

But, to their consternation, the evaluation was inconclusive.

It found both models have weaknesses. The OCR pilot resulted in pupils obtaining a grade B with marks of 16-24 per cent on the top paper, and there were concerns that trials of the second model, introduced as pupils were revising for their GCSEs, had been rushed.

Even so, the QCA appears to be committed to pressing ahead with reform next year - on one or other of the new models - because teachers have been promised changes to the much-criticised current arrangements.

The QCA provoked widespread unhappiness at the meeting, from which The TES was barred, by refusing to release the full details of its evaluation. As The TES went to press, it relented and agreed to release copies.

Doug French, of the Mathematical Association, said: "It's quite clear that there is no strong evidence that argues for one model or the other. The QCA has to take more time over this."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

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