GCSE maths reforms and our research programme

A transcript of Ian Stockford's video where he talks about the new GCSE maths specifications and our research programme.

Hi. I’m Ian Stockford and I’m Associate Director of Research and Analysis here at Ofqual

As I’m sure you’re aware we’ve recently accredited a number of new GCSE mathematics specifications from all the exam boards. These will be awarded for the first time in summer 2017. Although 2 year courses will start this September, many of you may be preparing your students now.

As you will know, the newly reformed GCSE maths is very different from that currently being offered.

The new version covers a broader and deeper curriculum and has more demanding content. But it must also continue to cater for a wide range of students; so, more than ever, maths exams must include questions pitched at different levels of demand.

Since the new content is different from that in the current qualifications the assessment standard - or how demanding a particular assessment is - is very challenging to define right now.

Though when accrediting the new specifications the focus is on the perceived level of demand being appropriate for a new GCSE Maths qualification.

So I’ve used the term demand there a few times. The notion of ‘demand’ is often confused with ‘difficulty’ so let me clarify what I mean.

By demand I mean a judgement of the cognitive processes a student has to carry out to answer a question. Difficulty on the other hand is an empirical measure of how successful a group of students were in answering a question – so you can get it this through the marks a student scored when they actually sat the exam questions. Obviously, because of this, judgements of demand can inform part of the accreditation process whereas the actual difficulty can’t.

Recognising this, we did a good amount of work in advance of specifications being submitted to us, to articulate these standards. This work included the development of guidance and rules for how assessments should be designed and you might have seen some of these and commented on parts of them as part of our earlier consultations.

This extent of pre-accreditation work has never been done before.

What this work helped to do was reduce the potential variability in the assessment standard between the specifications, but it wasn’t intended to limit valid differences that will inevitably occur between how each exam board addresses our requirements. Now there’s been a lot of media interest the approaches different boards have taken and also interest in our accreditation process.

Let me assure you that our accreditation process is robust and involves subject experts scrutinising materials submitted by the exam boards to support each of their specifications.

It seeks to ensure that each board has an appropriate assessment strategy for each specification and that those strategies can be implemented in a way which means each exam board, and its qualifications, can continue to meet our regulatory requirements over time.

Accreditation is also an opportunity to give consideration to the level of demand and the comparability of demand across the different qualifications as far as is possible at this stage with the evidence available.

Some variety between the boards is acceptable - and as I say actually inevitable - but that variety shouldn’t result in one or more of the specifications being an easier route to any grade being awarded.

So accreditation isn’t a comparability exercise, but the expert panel did give attention to the level of demand across the different specifications submitted by the different exam boards.

Only when the level of demand of each specification came within what was judged to be an acceptable range were they accredited. There were a number of submissions for accreditation from each exam board that were unsuccessful, and there were a range of reasons, but central to this was consideration of the assessment demand.

We’re confident in the decisions we made as a result of the accreditation panel’s recommendations.

These judgements are made at a particular point in time, based on a particular set of materials - but as I’ve described, it isn’t possible to judge whether different qualifications are precisely comparable at this stage.

And that’s why we are carrying out a comprehensive research programme to explore these issues in more depth. What this will do is give us further evidence on demand and difficulty across the different sample assessment materials.

If you want to find out more about about this research, you can find details on our website at www.gov.uk/ofqual.

Unless our research provides sound evidence to the contrary, we will remain confident in the judgements made during accreditation.

Finally, I just want to say we’ve had a fantastic response to our call for school participation as part of our research.

In a matter of days we’ve recruited over 4,000 students to sit test exams. I am really sorry that we couldn’t involve every school that volunteered, but, genuinely, thank you for wanting to participate.

It is encouraging that so many schools are seeking to engage so positively with our work.

So that’s all for now, but we will provide more information on our research as it progresses.

If you do have any questions, please do contact us here at Ofqual.

Original video

GCSE maths reforms and our research programme

Published 2 February 2015