Tough exams

You may have seen the fuss about the Edexcel C3 “replacement” exam paper taken on 13th June,  which so many candidates claim was “too hard”.

I feel quite fortunate to have actually not been in school that day (doing my own exam!) but I was soon made aware of all the fuss.  And what a fuss it is – the Facebook page complaining about it had reached over 12,000 likes by the evening of that day, and is standing at over 16,500 now.

The complainers are suggesting that Edexcel knocked together the replacement paper at the last minute and got it wrong. Er, no! That’s not how it works!  Exam boards always have one or more papers in reserve in case there are security problems – and with the best will in the world, security problems can always arise, whether through a delivery problem, as here, or through lax security at a school, or simple human error.  They certainly wouldn’t have been setting it at this stage – putting together exam papers is quite a long-drawn-out process.

They are also complaining that the replacement isn’t of identical difficulty to the original. Well, no two exam papers are of identical difficulty – that’s almost impossible to achieve.  In fact, having looked at them side by side, there were quite a lot of parallels between the two papers; the earlier one is probably marginally easier, but it’s not a major difference – it’s certainly not a gift!   It’s ridiculous that people are using this as grounds to criticise the papers having been replaced – would they have complained if the new paper had been easier, do you think? Or would they rather Edexcel had ignored the consignment of papers going missing?

A small number of schools made the mistake of giving out the wrong paper.  Some of the people complaining are making a meal of this, saying that it’s “not fair” that they all be judged to the same standard. Well, they’ve really got the wrong end of the stick there. Firstly, the exam board is not going to use the same grade boundaries for two different papers – you just wouldn’t do that. They’ll do something to try to protect the interests of the candidates who took the wrong paper due to centre error, and I’d imagine that’ll include discussing the “award” for that paper separately, and to check that they are being fair on grade boundaries, given there are so few candidates (and so there may not be the normal spread of ability), they are likely to see how the marks correlate with performance on other papers for those candidates.   Even if Edexcel were so bizarre as to try to set common boundaries for the two papers, the very small number of candidates taking the wrong paper wouldn’t have any impact on the grade boundaries overall.

So was the paper unfair though?  Well actually, no. There was nothing on that paper that was outside the specification.  There was a lot of standard stuff. What made it tougher was that in normal circumstances, you might expect one question with a “nasty bit” where you had to think on your feet, but here there were three of them.   Also, in one case the way the question was set out (with a fairly lengthy context-based preamble) tended to freak candidates out so they didn’t realise that most of the question was standard. There was a bit less walking the candidates through each step than there has been sometimes as well.  So – tough, yes, but not unfair.  In fact it looked a bit more like the sort of questions you got back in the 90s.

So why was there such an uproar?  The huge pressure of top-grade university offers for a start – when so many offers are AAA, candidates won’t feel there’s room for any “give” in the system, so one bad paper does indeed feel like the end of the world.  There’s also an unfortunate side effect of candidates having such ready access to old papers and markschemes, that they tend to feel that an exam paper should be almost exactly like something they’ve seen before, and not hold any surprises – the exam board, understandably, don’t agree!  Then you get the natural contrast between doing an old paper sat in your room with the markscheme on your phone beside you and the real thing, in the exam hall, with no comforting markscheme.  Also, in my experience kids tend to remember what they could do in practice papers (and do their best to avoid thinking about what they couldn’t – they often convince themselves that questions like “that nasty one in June 09” won’t happen again), whereas in exams the problematic bits loom large.

That being said, I am still not happy with Edexcel. If they are going to make a policy of setting tougher exams with lower grade boundaries, I’m all for it – it avoids the problem we’ve had in recent years where the boundaries are so high that one careless error can cost the A*. But it would be reasonable to signal to us their intention to change policy, rather than springing it on us.   It’s also rather bizarre that some of the Further Maths papers (eg FP2, sat on Friday), is much more similar in style to the old approach of talking candidates through stages and not having questions involving application.

It has quite shocked me that a number of candidates and even teachers seem unaware of the fact that grade boundaries vary from one exam to the next, and that the difficulty is taken into consideration.  Though unfortunately, this process isn’t as reliable in maths as it might be, as performance in “single maths” modules like C3 tends to automatically be skewed to the top end by the presence of candidates who are taking Further Maths, for whom modules such as C3, even if they are comparatively nasty exams, are at the easy end of the spectrum.  If the exam board have an agenda imposed on them from above not to allow too many A* and A grades, then there is a serious risk that those doing single maths will be disadvantaged as the further mathematicians are likely to take the lion’s share of the top grades.  We’ve been seeing this happen over the last few years – the pushing up of boundaries to prevent an A* overload has made it substantially harder to get an A than it used to be – and that’s not about the papers, but the boundary setting.

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