A levels – opening doors or enlarging brains?

I am thinking of which type of exam to work towards in the new sixth form. In simplistic terms, the one that students probably will do better at, or the one that is more mathematically genuine. Here are some thoughts:

  • Secondary school teachers often are frustrated by the crazy grade inflation they perceive in students Yr6 SATS marks. “No way is ____ a Level 5” we mutter. The accusation is not of cheating, but of coaching to the test. It is unhelpful in secondary school, giving an inaccurate picture of the students and providing unrealistic GCSE targets. If we want accurate marks from primary school, then surely we should give accurate marks from secondary school.
  • Inaccurate grades are not only unhelpful for teachers/universities, they are unhelpful for the student. If a university course requires an A grade, what it really requires is a student capable of A-grade level thinking (if such a thing exists…).
  • I asked my mum (a research scientist) about this. She cannot see any conflict – “Of course you should take the intellectually honest and challenging route”. Set high expectations and students will meet them.
  • I asked MK (an American) about this. In America standardised tests are… standardised. No choice of exam board. Individual teachers/schools don’t have to make this horrible choice, between honesty and what they might perceive as helping their students by opening doors with good grades.

In summary – if a student does not deserve an A grade (whatever that might mean), then playing the system to get them an A grade is delaying failure. Choose the more challenging course, make brains bigger, dream big!

OCR (B) Exams

In conjunction with MEI, OCR have devised a new spec. Features I like:

  • The large data set is comparative information about countries over time. Great for highlighting social inequalities and getting students debating.
  • The third paper includes mathematical comprehension – read a new bit of Maths and then answer questions based on it. Excellent for encouraging mathematical independence.
  • Problem-solving questions abound, with lots of interpretations (that are not hoop-jumping but ensure deep understanding)


Edit: KS says “Surely we can teach deep problem-solving in lessons while also using a less mathematically challenging exam board?” A response: our systems should nudge everyone to always keep our mathematical integrity. GCSE interventions often lose sight of the beauty of Maths, because they can. If GCSE exam questions all required deep problem-solving then rote-learning how to rationalise a denominator would become less tempting.



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