Friday 21 July 2017

Why Getting Rid of AS Maths Could Be Good for My Students

September 2017 sees the launch of the new Maths A Level course. All the other A Level courses changed a year or two ago, but the Maths changes were delayed because Maths teachers were already getting to grips with the new GCSE course (how considerate of the government, giving us two whole years to cope with the overhaul of two massive and important qualifications). The content has changed a little bit in some areas and hugely in other areas, but what I really want to talk about in this post are the implications of de-coupling the AS from the A Level.

Up until now, our students have sat 3 AS Maths exams in year 12, then 3 A2 exams in year 13, and then the two sets of results are added together and used to produce an overall A Level grade. The AS exams are obviously easier, but they are equally weighted. You can resit as many of the AS exams as you like in year 13, and your best grades count. From next year, students can take the AS Maths exams, and bank an AS in Maths. But if they decide to carry on and do the full A Level, the AS exam grades will not count for anything. 

The first cohort of students I managed as Key Stage 5 Coodinator produced a very surprising (to me) set of results. Their AS results were, on the whole, pretty bad. I felt like I had failed completely as a teacher and as a leader. Most of my students were below target, and our ALPS grade was really low. Some difficult conversations were had between me and the head. Then, one year later, those same students miraculously gave me our best set of A Level results ever. Is it because that talk with the head inspired me to turn my life around and become an amazing teacher and relentless pursuer of added value? No (I respond badly to criticism, anyways). I didn't really do anything different. So why did my students do so much better in the end? 

One possible explanation is that when my students take their exams at the end of year 13, they are much more mature, both emotionally and mathematically, than they were at the end of year 12. Most of my students resit at least at least one of their AS modules, and they usually improve their grades massively (S1 by 30 UMS on average - 3 grades, C1 and C2 by about 20 UMS on average - 2 grades). Everything they found difficult in AS just seems to automatically become easier to understand after learning the A2 course. I sort of expected this with C1 and C2, as C3 and C4 are mostly extensions of those. But it really surprised me that my students managed to improve S1 by so much, as S2 is very different and could probably be learnt without having learnt S1. I didn't do any S1 lessons in year 13, the students re-learnt it and revised it all in their own time. There isn't any reason they would do better in it after a year of self-teaching compared to a year of professional teaching, other than the fact that they are more mathematically mature. 

With the new system, there will be no such thing as resits. But I don't think it was the fact that they had two chances at a module that helped my students, I think it was the fact that they were able to do AS modules as older and wiser year 13s. As all of the content will now be assessed at the end of two years, it's a bit like retaking all three AS modules in year 13, but without having 4.5 hours of extra exams. This means my students' performance should really be better. 

Another benefit of the new system is having a much longer and more flexible period of time to teach all of the content. Every year, we struggle to squeeze in all of the AS content, often having to teach some of it during May half term, and every year we finish the A2 course around Easter and spend the last term doing revision, which students steadily become less and less engaged in as it drags on. With a two-year course and no half-way exams, we will have the flexibility to spend longer on the first year course if we need to. We could also choose to leave all of the mechanics and stats until the second year, or teach all the course in topic blocks with no distinction between what's year one and what's year two content. If you only have one maths teacher in the entire school who understands mechanics (and I know there are a lot of schools in this situation), but you have two groups of students, you could get her to teach one group one year and the other group the next year. It makes planning your scheme of learning a lot easier because of the added flexibility.

For this particular cohort of students, if they had not had AS results, that might have helped them get into university. Almost all of my students achieved a higher grade in their overall A Level Maths than they did in their AS. I had a student go from an E to a B, I had a student go from a C to an A*, and only two students out of nineteen went down. Their low AS grades stopped them from applying to some of the top universities or caused the universities to reject them. Our UCAS predicted grades (which I've complained about already here) were mostly the same as the AS grades, because we had no reason to believe their A Level grades would be any higher (although we know better now). It's not really a good thing that almost all of our students beat their UCAS grades, because it means we have limited their choices and decreased their chances of a Russell Group education unnecessarily.

One benefit of the old system was that the AS exams acted as a filter, weeding out the students who were never going to make it through the full A Level. This is good for those students, because it means they waste only one year of their life rather than two. It's good for teachers too, because it means that in year 13 the spread of understanding is usually less wide, which makes the class easier to teach. At that point the less motivated, lazier, and more disruptive students have usually left.

However, as someone who has a growth mindset, and as someone who strives to be inclusive, there's something about the paragraph above that just doesn't sit well with me. It sounds like I'm saying that the purpose of AS exams is to eliminate the students that we don't want, which almost sounds like we want a certain number of our students to fail. Also, a student failing (or doing badly in) their AS does not necessarily mean they are incapable of succeeding in A Level maths. It might just be that they have a differently curved progress trajectory.

For some students, adjusting to the demands of post-sixteen education is challenging and can mean that their progress is slow at first. These students would benefit from a two-year course because it allows more time to find their feet. Therefore I'm not completely sure that the "weeding out the weak" argument is fair or valid.

Another argument for having AS exams is that it can serve as a wake up call for some of the less motivated and more lazy students. There are always students (usually boys) who do well in their GCSEs with minimal effort, and assume they can get away with a similar level of effort at A Level. When they do their AS levels and inevitably get a lower grade than they were hoping for, this can be the kick up the arse they need to step up their game. One of my favourite manga series, Assassination Classroom, references this: (it's Japanese so read right to left)

I think this particular argument is quite a strong one, as I've seen it happen with many of my students. That student who got a C in his AS and an A* by the end is one example. He's extremely stubborn by nature, and after being disappointed with all of his AS results, he started working ridiculously hard. Without this lightbulb moment on results day, who knows what grade he would have ended up with in the end? And he wasn't the only one: I reckon around half of the class experienced something similar, just maybe not as strongly. 

Some schools have decided to enter their students for AS exams for this very reason. However, I worry that now that the AS exams don't actually contribute towards the final grade, students will treat them as mock exams, and not give it their all. Then, when their AS grades are below target, they will just say "yeah, well, I didn't really try that hard, I'll try harder in next year's exams and I'll be fine" which means they haven't received the full benefit of failing. I am also concerned that entering students for exams that don't even count is a big waste of money, in a time when education is critically underfunded. 

What we really need is a way to give our students that wake up call in a genuine way. Most students do not care about mock exam grades. Most students do not care about class assessment results, or working at grades or teacher predicted grades. They think they know better. 

Unfortunately, I haven't worked out a solution yet! Sorry if your were hoping for one! I've always been more of a questioner than an answerer. 

Emma X X X 

PS OMG I didn't mention chess for this entire blog! 


  1. I see the tendency, that nowadays, less and less people are interested in learning Math. People prefer to learn foreign languages.

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