GCSE results in maths and in all subjects have been published and I would like to congratulate students and their teachers on their hard work and achievements this year. There has been a great deal of media attention on examinations through the past year and concerns raised that GCSEs are no longer fit for their purpose. In maths, at least, I believe the current GCSE is a good test of what we value in mathematics, and, whilst not perfect, does a good job of measuring and recognising individual achievement across the ability range. As we all know, GCSE results are also required to be the main accountability measure for schools and colleges and this has led to complex entry patterns, particularly in mathematics. Early entry, multiple entry, switching exam board mid- course and using different exam approaches for different teaching groups have all become common in the past few years. Of course, whilst these strategies may make some difference, it remains great teaching that leads to great results and I hope that a positive outcome of the move back to linear assessment will be that schools can go back to teaching the subject, rather than teaching for exams…

Amidst all this complexity, with constantly shifting exam populations and multiple routes to grades, our job in AQA is a simple one in principle but challenging in practice. We have to ensure that grades are comparable from year to year, across different tiers within a specification, across all our GCSE maths specifications and, working with Ofqual, across all the specifications available from all exam boards.

A C is a C is a C is a C
Last month, there was speculation in the media that Ofqual had ordered exam boards to raise grade boundaries in GCSE maths this summer. Whilst it is true that some grade boundaries set last year were disappointingly low, we have made it clear that grade boundary setting happens in the awarding process and not before. Once all the available judgmental and statistical evidence is considered in great detail, then we set boundaries to achieve the comparability described above. This year, boundaries have generally gone up compared with last year, but this was based on the judgements of the awarding committee and not as a result of any outside pressures. In fact, this is what we hoped for as we have done a lot of work in the past year to improve the style and appearance of our papers, making them more accessible in terms of language and layout without diluting the mathematical challenge of the questions. One measure of the success of this would be better performance as students should be better able to access the mathematics within questions without other factors getting in the way.

Overall situation this year (include QP changes)
Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ approach, which we fully support, is designed to achieve comparability across different boards and to prevent competition on standards. Normally, this approach would expect grade outcomes to be within 1% of statistical predictions and, usually, this works well. However, the population shifts in the GCSE maths cohort this year led us to believe that following the Ofqual approach would lead to unfair results for students entered with AQA. We presented a technical argument, which Ofqual accepted, leading to greater increases at grades A and C. Compared with last year; this means that, in our unitised specification, grade A outcomes are up by just under 3% and grade C by just over 5%. In our linear specification, grade A outcomes are down slightly (-0.9%) and grade C is up by just over 1%. This is not about lowering standards or dumbing down, but an appropriate response to changes in the group of students who do AQA’s maths exams.

Continuing commitment and looking forward
Looking forward, the coming academic year will see a shift to end of course assessment in all GCSEs and we will be working with teachers and with the regulator to ensure that results this November and next summer remain fair to all students. We will also be developing new assessments for first teaching in 2015 and consulting widely with teachers on the support you need to guide students through the changes to content and structure. At AQA, we remain committed to offering high quality assessments and to supporting excellence in the teaching and learning of mathematics. It promises to be another interesting year!

Best wishes for the new term
Andrew Taylor
Head of Mathematics, AQA