Another exam season another perceived over complicated mathematics exam. Last year the controversy was over the Hannah’s Sweets question in the Edexcel Higher tier GCSE paper 1. This year the issue is the Edexcel C1 AS level paper. Social media has been all of a flutter with incredibly anxious students decrying the difficulty of the paper sat on Wednesday 18th May. It has also spawned a couple of petitions to Secretary of State Nicky Morgan calling for the grade boundaries to be reduced.
I need to be careful here because the last thing I want to appear to be doing is mocking students who have come out of an exam hall upset because they feel they’ve not done as well as they could on an exam. I really am not doing that. Here goes with my controversial statement hypothesis however… the resilience of a vast number of our students is poor to the extent that too many students place blame at the exam paper not asking them questions they can do rather than calling into question their own preparedness for what should be a challenging exam paper – after all it is an Advanced level in mathematics!
I’m not saying that is always a students fault. Some teachers will need to share the blame. The incessant high stakes accountability around exam performance doesn’t help. Neither does the exponential underfunding of schools, particularly at post 16 level where trying to get as many bums on seats as possible to mitigate the drastic cuts in funding in real terms is meaning, possibly (and again I’m hypothesising here) that there are too many students taking A level mathematics that maybe do not have the building blocks of mathematical understanding needed to be successful at A level.
The paper was challenging yes. But it is an A level mathematics exam – it is supposed to be challenging! Fractions permeated the questions and solutions? Yes there were quite a few but again a massive part of A level mathematics is getting used to handling exact numbers whether they be fractions, surds, whatever – after all not all situations in life lead to nice simple integers or halves and quarters. The numerical calculations were too hard to do without a calculator? No not really. When I went through it I think the most complicated arithmetic calculation I had to do was 6 x 285 in the AP question and later on verifying that 25 x 18 was 450. If the calculations being attempted were more challenging than this (like trying to square root a 4 digit number or do decimal multiplication – two of the things I’ve seen on Twitter) then the approach the student is taking to the question needs to be called into question. I thought the first 6 questions were relatively straight forward (though 6c was a sneaky 1 marker that really did test understanding). It got more challenging after this but each of the remaining questions had parts that should have been easily accessible, however by then the self confidence of some will have been hit to the extent that they maybe couldn’t access these when normally they would.
It sounds like I am ‘having a go’ at students complaining on social media about the difficulty of their exam and I suppose in a way I am to some extent. However I’m also calling into question how we as teachers prepare students for the tests – whether because we are too comfortable in teaching to the test of the constraints of education in this country somehow force us to do this – and also maybe even the fact that in the past C1 wasn’t challenging enough. I also call into question how we handle failure in this country in an educational context. Because of the high stakes accountability agenda starting from the government at the top working down each level to the classroom, failure is a dirty word. It shouldn’t be. We should be teaching students to embrace failure more than we do and to me, this is the root of the problem that the students outcry over the C1 exam is a symptom of. However through the widespread use of social media a challenging, but fair, exam paper becomes a concerted effort by the educational establishment to cause students to fail through no fault of their own. To some I think it is a useful scapegoat to cover either a lack of preparedness, poor teaching, lack of rigour previously or a lack of resilience or a combination of all these.