An Audience with the GCSE Exam Boards
Where did GCSE students perform well this summer? And which are the areas that they still struggle with? What can teachers do to help students overcome these difficulties?
In our latest podcast, we gathered together representatives from AQA, Edexcel and OCR, to pick their brains about this summer’s GCSE exam questions.
First, we wanted to know if students were better prepared for the second summer of the new GCSE
The boards were understandably hesitant, it being difficult to make likeforlike comparisons given different papers, shifting grade boundaries, and the effect, this summer, of having a cohort of post16 resit students included in the figures (this makes results difficult to compare with 2017 when resitters took the legacy qualification). However, all three boards saw evidence of better preparation.
Andrew (AQA): It’s easier to do a likeforlike comparison with the Higher tier (because resitters at higher are negligible in number) and certainly with measures like mean performance, and performance across the different assessment objectives at all levels of demand, it’s clear that those higher tier students are performing better than last year.
Graham (Edexcel): I think there is some evidence they have been better prepared, yes. At Foundation, equation solving has been better. Standard form questions have been answered better too.
Neil (OCR): There is certainly some evidence to suggest that students were better prepared. Last year we were seeing candidates struggling in some particular areas such as quadratics and completing the square and ratio – there are still some issues with candidate responses but there does look to be improvements in some areas.
When we interviewed the exam boards last year, we asked which topics students struggled with. Is it the same topics that are still giving headaches this year?
Is ‘ratio, proportion, rates of change’ still an area that students are finding hard?
Neil (OCR): In terms of raw marks, algebra and the ratio/proportion/rates of change topics seem to be the ones that students are struggling at more. That was the case across the two assessment series last year as well. There are a number of questions on the new specifications where different content areas are being brought together, and I do think that ratio, and algebra, are two areas that do commonly get bundled in with other topics.
But it’s important to emphasise that we are not just talking about the narrow ‘ratio’ topic, where a student might need to know how to simplify a ratio, divide in a given ratio or solve a problem, typically to do with paint or orange squash. We are talking about an understanding of multiplicative relationships that pervades a huge proportion of the specification, and indeed, mathematics more generally.
Neil (OCR): For this new assessment, the ‘ratio, proportion, rates of change’ has its own section on the DfE content document. That really puts the finger on how much it has come up in this new assessment – previously ratio and proportion were just covered in the ‘number’ section.
Andrew (AQA): Outside the section in the specification, proportional reasoning is key to understanding of trigonometry, it’s key to algebra, it’s key to a lot of number work, similarity, best value problems, anything to do with rates – speed, time, pressure – so it absolutely pervades the whole of mathematics at this level. The student who really understands and can work deeply with multiplicative reasoning will be successful at GCSE.
And what about fractions? Are students any better at handling fractions?
Graham (Edexcel) says that this is still an area in which they are finding that student understanding is not as robust as they would like: [with] numerical or algebraic fractions, but particularly numerical adding or dividing or multiplying fractions – and percentages sometimes – there seems not to be the strong understanding of percentages that we would hope. That does turn up in quite a lot of questions.
Andrew (AQA) agrees: In terms of questions that didn’t perform as expected for their place in the paper – I would echo what Graham said about fractions. The first question on one of our papers was:
AQA Paper 1(F), Q1 June 2018
…only 39% of Foundation students got that right, and there were other questions around fractions, and converting fractions to decimals, that proved to be unexpectedly difficult.
How’s algebra looking this year…?
Andrew (AQA) says: At Higher tier, the difficult algebra questions performed as expected – the strongest candidates are clearly good at that, but some of the lower demand algebra questions surprised us with how poorly they performed. For example, in this question, a lot of students got order of operations wrong which was surprising at Higher tier.
AQA Paper 1H Q3 June 2018
And is geometry getting neglected with increased focus on number and algebra topics?
Neil (OCR): Yes and no. It has a smaller weighting on the new specification, so you would expect to see a reduction in terms of schemes of work time. Students are still struggling in some areas of the content, particularly around similar shapes, trigonometry. But geometry is not leaping out at me as an area that students should be spending more time on.
However, here is an example that many examiners thought would be a decent question:
OCR, Paper 3(F), Q1, June 2018
But one out of ten foundation students weren’t doing anything at all with that question, just left it blank. And less than 50% of students (F) picked up the mark for it. We would hope that students would be performing a bit better than that when faced with symmetry on a regular octagon.
Andrew (AQA): Whilst geometry gets a lower proportion of the marks than previously, there’s still a lot of stuff in there, so it’s going to be less sampled in an exam than other content areas. There’s evidence that some parts of that big body of content are not getting the attention they should – things that have perhaps been covered in KS3 and are not revisited, such as enlargement questions – particularly at the higher tier, negative and fractional scale factors. Bearings, interior and exterior angles, properties of shapes – our worst performing question across all of the higher tier, was about the properties of a rhombus: It was a bit of an ask for one mark, but even given that, that only 4% got that mark was quite striking. It was the deepest dip in the performance.
AQA, Paper 3(H), Q13, June 2018
Graham (Edexcel): I‘ll throw vectors into that too. We had a straightforward vectors question on the higher tier, that wasn’t particularly well answered. Vectors is often tested as a ‘vector proof’ and can give some of the most difficult questions, but this time it was a much more straightforward question but maybe students just hadn’t covered it:
Edexcel Paper 1, Q26(H), June 2018
Are students managing the increased ‘reasoning and problemsolving’ demands better this year?
Neil (OCR) tells us: within reasoning, it’s the ‘show that’ questions that continually seem to be giving students more of a headache. Within problem solving, with both Foundation and Higher tier, it seems to be the questions that require you to translate problems into a series of processes. For Foundation tier only, it’s those questions where students are required to bring together different areas of the content to solve a problem. Higher tier seem to be doing quite well with that  this is one of the few areas where there seems to be a distinct distinction between Foundation students and Higher students.
He also points out that evaluating assumptions is a very new area of the specification and one that students are still getting to grips with.
Graham (Edexcel) concurs: followon questions that are often only one mark, but they are often ‘interpret how this would have been different if some of the parameters had been changed’. For example, part (b) in this question:
Edexcel Paper 1 Q22(F), Q4(H), June 2018
Students do find those difficult to deal with, to be able to approach and give a descriptive answer – a lot of students think there should only be numbers on a maths paper. Part of the reasoning and interpretation is to follow up what you have done and show how the maths you have done applies, or tells you what it means, and those are still difficult areas.
Any other points that teachers might usefully think about?
Graham (Edexcel): Students and perhaps teachers, always seem to be better prepared if they’ve seen a style of question in a past paper. When it’s something that’s unusual, it’s still difficult. Where the question is unusual, it’s more about the resilience of the student and their attempt to get something from the question than feeling familiar about something they’ve done in the past. … I don’t think doing past papers carries you through everything. It’s really getting a secure enough understanding that you can apply topics in different ways. For example – where in the past, we might have previously given the equation of a line and asked a candidate to draw it, this time we had the line, and the student had to find the equation and they did find that quite difficult:
Edexcel Paper 2, Q22(F), Q3(H) June 2018
Andrew (AQA): I think perhaps a theme is that what we believed were lower demand questions on harder topics weren’t performing to expectations. Perhaps higher tier students are expecting, and being led to expect, the seriously difficult stuff towards the end, but not performing quite so well on what we believed would be lower demand things.
What makes for a great exam question? And what makes examiners cringe and wish they’d never thought up that one? What makes students roar with frustration on social media? And how much notice do the exam boards take? Find out all this and more, by listening to the full podcast.
Talking to Gwen Tresidder (NCETM) were:
 Andrew Taylor (AQA)
 Graham Cumming (Edexcel)
 Neil Ogden (OCR).
