Fifty years of A-level mathematics: Have standards changed?

There has been a great deal of speculation over whether standards have fallen in public examinations in England, but little substantial evidence.

In a study funded by AQA, the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University working with Dr Chris Wheadon, ran a Comparative Judgement study hosted on to consider this issue in the context of A-level Maths.

Candidates’ responses to 66 scripts from the mid-1960s to 2012 were judged by 20 PhD students in Mathematics. For each pair of responses, the judges were asked:

the better mathematician?

Bias was eliminated by re-typesetting questions, re-writing answers in the same hand and not informing the students of the purpose of the study.

We found that a grade ‘B’ today is equivalent to an ‘E’ in the 60s, but found no evidence that standards have declined since the 1990s. An inspection of Figure 1 indicates that the perceived decrease appears to have happened between 1968 and 1996, and there appears to have been little perceived variation in mathematical performance between 1964 and 1968 or between 1996 and 2012. Statistical tests confirm this impression.

If you would like to understand the methodology of the study better, you can judge for yourself whether children of the 60s, 90s or 21st century are the better mathematicians.

A draft version of the full paper is available here.

Fifty years of A-level mathematics: Have standards changed? is written by Ian Jones (Loughborough University), Chris Wheadon (No More Marking), Sara Humphries (Ofqual) and Matthew Inglis (Loughborough University) and is published by the British Educational Research Journal.

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