Why #EdexcelMaths shows we’re failing students.

News broke yesterday with another scandal within the GCSE exams, with it being the turn of Edexcel’s Mathematics paper to take the brunt of ‘unfair exam’ statuses and updates. Students filed with outrage at the question that they deemed too challenging or unfair to attempt. The question itself is fairly innocuous, but with interesting wording

There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow.

Hannah takes a sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet.

‘The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that nĀ²-n-90=0

The solution is very straight forward, and involves no maths they wouldn’t have been exposed to after year 10. It also follows complaints about an AS Physics exam that asked students to find the internal resistance of a potato, and an infamous Biology exam from 2010.

I actually took that Biology exam back in 2010, I remember the whole classroom being furious after the event, but I was pretty thankful. It was the first year they had moved away from knowledge recall lto testing your application of knowledge. It also happened to be the first year of the new syllabus and the example papers gave no indication of this.

The complaints that year cried the same thing about stupid exams, and unfair questions (the claim being we were unable to answer them), and very few claims that the exam board had been deceptive in their positioning. The latter was the only one that really mattered. We’d be set up for an exam about memory recall and got when about application. The exam wasn’t too hard, but it set up a false assumption about what was going to happen.

What these do show however is that either exam boards are failing to communicate their intentions to students and teachers, or the demands on schools to produce students who can learn by rote all the things needed to get the grades and marks required to make the school look good enough. When schools live or die by getting the grades for the most students, educating becomes secondary to teaching exam techniques and chunks of information.

All the above maths question requires you to do is think about what it is asking you to do, rather than panicking about the final result. It’s a very simple decision tree/probability question once you get to the root of it, and people missed that due to having to gather that information from words.

It was the same with the potato question, it was the same with my biology paper. We just aren’t taught how to rationally approach problems, instead just the exact protocol that the exam board wanted to get marks. Within physics A Level papers there are small essay questions, but the marks are given for such a narrow range of possibilities, that kids are taught how to answer exactly as the mark scheme wishes. Failure to do so means that correct knowledge will not be marked so. This unfair and foolish position has lead to schools maximising on exam technique, and now it is biting them.

Examining bodies can not have it both ways, because it puts burdens on schools that are ineffective, and schools cannot continue to punish schools for failing to hit minimum grade requirements. Some form of evaluation is needed but the way it acts currently is abysmal. Schools can, and do, put kids who they fear won’t get the C at GCSE and put them in the BTEC as soon as possible, effectively removing any possibilities for these children to engage in the subject at any point in the future.

A system that actually encourages engagement with the subject, and boardsĀ that have competent markers, and flexible mark schemes that don’t punish informed answers that deviate from the few accepted answers.

The #EdexcelMaths outrage is just indicative of a further problem that is becoming increasingly common as schools fight for rankings in a system that doesn’t even know what it wants to be.