A guide to choosing an exam board for the new A Level Maths qualification
As cofounder of MarkIt, a website for A Level Maths practice, I’m responsible for composing exam questions that suit each exam board. A consequence of doing this for the new A Level is the chance to make some interesting comparisons across each of Edexcel, AQA, OCR and MEI.
My meetings with teachers in recent weeks have resulted in questions being asked of my opinion on each board and which I would recommend. I was very interested to hear the way that they themselves were making comparisons and looking at the tradeoffs involved in picking one board over the other.
Before we start comparing, it is important to remember that the content being examined in the new A Level Maths exams is the same across all boards.
So the tipping points become:
Structure of the exam papers - what do students prefer?
The kinds of curriculum mapped resources provided - will there be enough support?
How well the assessment style prepares students for university - what suits your students’ aspirations?
These are so open to opinion of teachers and indeed students that the final decision will end up being a compromise for most departments, albeit to varying degrees of woe.
Which would I choose?
When asked which board I would choose, I realised it would depend entirely on my role. If I was tutoring the whole A Level on a one to one basis, I would choose MEI or AQA depending on the university aspirations of my student. If I was a head of department responsible for an entire cohort, it would be Edexcel. Read on to find out why!
The only exam board that has separated pure and applied papers. Is this a good thing?
This has been a big selling point to several teachers I have spoken with as it gives students comfort in having exam papers that do not mix themes. This is however an artificial comfort!
The reality of the new A Level is that the individual questions, on pure or applied, will require students to think across several topics regardless of whether a specific question is pure or applied. They will need to have both hats on at all times anyway - so it is important not to rely too heavily on being able to compartmentalise.
Looking at the other exam boards - yes the papers contain both pure and applied but these are still presented as ‘sections’ with pure coming first and then a set of questions on applied. Therefore, I do not feel that having separate papers is actually a very unique selling point at all and I would not compromise on what is best for students in terms of learning in exchange for seemingly compartmentalized exams.
Edexcel is a familiar animal to most schools and that comfort is reassuring to many teachers. The impression is that there are plenty of curriculum mapped resources available in the form of practice papers and digital offerings that incorporate Geogebra and calculators - a new aspect of A Level assessment. Teachers feel that Edexcel significantly invests in their resources, making it an appealing choice to many heads of department.
Exam questions that really amalgamate multiple topics and test depth of understanding. Are the mark schemes ‘fair’?
There is a lot of respect in the teaching community for the academic rigour and challenge behind the AQA exam questions. I personally find that I end up smiling to myself while trying them - they surprise students by incorporating topics they would never have thought of being relevant to the question and do not patronise students with too much scaffolding. The questions challenge familiarity and AQA have embraced the overarching themes of the new A Level comprehensively.
Have they gone too far? At a seminar run by AQA where we were being talked through the marking criteria for the new exam papers, there was confusion and concern over the ‘R’ mark that is awarded to students for providing reasoning in their solutions. For example: You get the R mark if and only if ‘dy/dx>0’ is accompanied with ‘this implies y is increasing’.
This is a good discipline to expect of students, however, there was confusion with regards to the ambiguity in ascertaining which questions would require reasoning and which do not. It is not made obvious - there are questions that may give the impression that reasoning is needed, but with no ‘R’ marks assigned to it. There is a worry that students will feel paranoid and disenfranchised from reasoning as a skill if they overdo it out of fear of losing marks! Teachers felt that they would struggle to distinguish between reasoning and non reasoning questions themselves and this is worth considering when comparing exam boards.
More familiar looking questions and explicit testing of reasoning skills. Will students like using a separate answer booklet?
Going through the specimen papers for OCR did not give the impression that a lot had changed at all. Having said that, OCR has always presented questions that ask students to apply their theoretical knowledge in real contexts. The questions involving mathematical modelling in particular include a notable increase in depth and rigour, but it did feel like the rest of the topics were very similar to the way they have been tested in the past.
Opinions on this can go either way - mine is that I would like there to be less scaffolding in some instances. The questions provide some guidance where I feel students should be encouraged to do their own ‘on the spot’ thinking. Having said that, I can see how many existing past papers from the old specification would be just as relevant a resource for students taking the new OCR A Level which definitely helps ease the strain on teachers!
In contrast to AQA, note is that some questions explicitly state : ‘In this question you must show detailed reasoning.’ This resolves the ambiguity for students when it comes to knowing which questions require extra justification of working from them - something that AQA has kept ambiguous. This is good because it tests reasoning skills without making students paranoid about when they should be most explicit about making this effort.
As it has always been with OCR, students will have a separate answer booklet in which to write their answers. This may be a good way to decide between OCR and another board if the question is put to students and you are ambivalent in all other regards. I personally prefer writing my answers within the question papers - it means examiners can see any annotations I add to given diagrams, without me having to redraw them from scratch! For this reason AND the fact that the questions just seem too familiar, I am less enthused (But I am not a head of department!).
OCR B (MEI)
The Comprehension section in Paper 3 - the only exam board with this element. Will students like mixing pure and applied questions?
The MEI papers have always incorporated problem solving and modelling more so than any other board and quite deliberately given the intention is to prepare students for the world of industry! There are two key ways in which it has changed: the exam structure and the inclusion of a Comprehension section.
Students are first examined on pure and mechanics, then pure and statistics and then pure and comprehension (which is unique to MEI). Starting with the first two, it was great to see MEI maintain the same approach as it has in the past of having ‘Section A’ for shorter skills based questions and ‘Section B’ for longer problem solving questions that require more working. This did a great job in helping students ‘switch modes’ and understand the kind of rigour expected in each question.
The other exam boards start with pure and then go into applied. MEI has opted for keeping to its ‘Sections’ as they have been in the past and therefore jumbled up pure and applied questions in the same paper. Students may find this a bit of a struggle as it will feel a little distracting to switch between the two so often within the same paper - definitely something to ask students directly about.
The third paper, pure and comprehension is worth fewer marks and is a smaller proportion of the final grade compared with the other two. The comprehension is based only on pure maths and would make a lot of keen mathematicians very happy. Here is the sample paper. Students will be given a passage at the start, which will contain a narrative of an approach to solving a problem, with some computational results provided. In Section B of the paper, they will need to answer questions based on their understanding of the passage AND their arsenal of core skills. This is a true test of students’ resilience to problem solving. There is little spoon feeding here and high expectations - I would not have expected any less of MEI.
And that is it
A high level comparison of Edexcel, AQA, OCR A and MEI.
Have you considered switching boards this year? I would love to hear more about how you decided on a particular exam board for your students - please comment and share your thought process!