Tuesday, August 25th.

A report on mathematics teaching in secondary schools offers some further disturbing insights into how the push for better reported grades for schools (and their pupils) can come at the expense of building genuine understanding of a subject.

The “Evaluating Mathematics Pathways” interim report was carried out for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to whom it reported in April. It was set up to investigate changes to the qualifications structure in maths.

The report says: “One of the most significant challenges to improving learner experiences in mathematics classrooms is the effect of high-stakes external assessment on the experienced curriculum, particularly the ways teachers are compelled to behave in response to performative pressures.”

 The report then sets out some detail. Schools which are under pressure to raise the proportion of their pupils achieving C grades or better have experimented with different strategies for entering these students for the exam. For example, pupils are encouraged to complete the GCSE by the end of year 10 and then entered with the hope of securing a grade C. Or borderline students are entered for the more difficult “higher tier” papers, covering grades A*-C, and then told they only need to worry about completing the easier questions on the paper. (Presumably because through this method it is easier to get a C grade than by attempting the easier set of papers, where more marks are needed for a C).

The report says: “One of the main implications of the above entry strategies is the very likely scenario that fewer students will get sustained and meaningful engagement with those aspects of the programme of study typically assessed at higher tier.” Crucially, for those wanting to study the subject at A-level, this includes algebra, which is the foundation for much success post-16. Students who had seen their results at GCSE boosted in this way could then move on to A-level and find they struggled, because they had not mastered the subject. The report said that this tendency was particularly strong in 11-16 schools, which do not have to face the consequences of these strategies in the sixth form.

It concludes: “QCA should alert DCSF to the risks in maintaining and widening participation in the study of mathematics post-16 associated with the accountability measure of grade C in maths in the achievement and attainment [league] tables. There is evidence of increased early entry [of pupils] in order to ‘bank the grade C’, which may be particularly detrimental to transition issues at age 16.”

The findings were taken up in another independent report, by the curriculum development body Mathematics in Education and Industry. It says: “Some schools are now entering pupils for GCSE at the end of year 10 hoping to obtain a grade C. This practice is new and seems to be, at least in part, a response to the accountability requirement for mathematics.”

The Nottingham report also raises questions about exam boards’ move to offer GCSEs in “modular” form, where papers are taken throughout a course and there can be resits, rather than altogether at the end.

It says: “[Modular GCSEs] have been used by many centres as a means of raising attainment but do not necessarily improve levels of algebraic competence or mathematical understanding. We have also been told that graduated assessment [of this sort] tends to hinder teaching for progression in a topic.”

Looking into this issue, I also came across a joint document from the two leading subject associations for maths to last year’s Rose Review for the Government of the primary curriculum. (Available from here).

This mentions the impact of high-stakes testing on their subject, which Sir Jim Rose was barred by the Government from considering, a move the submission describes as “ridiculous”.

It says: “The high stakes assessment cannot be ignored – it is the most significant factor which limits the improvement of teaching and learning in primary mathematics.”

It adds: “Although the term ‘raising attainment’ is in common parlance, it was felt that the narrow interpretation of this to mean higher test results skews the teaching and learning in schools. The goals should be to improve teaching in order to improve learning.”

Finally, in my round-up of recent evidence, a report last week from Edge, the educational charity, also bemoaned the effects of teaching to the test. See this. The survey results themselves are available here.

My article for today’s Guardian on teachers reporting choosing exam boards on the basis of how ‘easy’ they are is here.



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