Mathematics in A level assessments

Students in the UK are much less likely to study mathematics after the age of 16 than their peers in many other countries. Furthermore, among students taking university courses that require mathematical knowledge beyond GCSE level, two thirds of them do not have the necessary quantitative skills.

In response to these findings, we undertook a project to analyse the mathematics embedded in a range of A level subjects: Business Studies, Computing, Economics, Geography, Psychology and Sociology. This project complemented a parallel study on the mathematical content of science A levels, undertaken by SCORE (Score Community Representing Education).

Using the SCORE methodology, we developed measures to map the extent, difficulty, and type of mathematics used in the assessments for each subject. The assessments were analysed by small groups of subject experts, comprising practising A level teachers, teachers with experience in curriculum research and exam markers.

Key findings

We found significant variation between exam boards on the extent, difficulty and type of mathematics used in the assessments. Further variation is added through student choice of different units and questions. For example, two students studying Business Studies could get the same grade, with one using no mathematics at all, and another gaining almost 50% of their mark from exam questions that require mathematical work.

  • Higher education subject associations, learned societies and other stakeholders should work with Ofqual on a better definition of the quantitative skills needed by students.
  • Stakeholders should consider the implications, advantages and disadvantages of variation in the coverage of mathematics across the different exam boards.
  • Stakeholders should consider the implications, advantages and disadvantages of the finding that students on the same course may have widely different levels of exposure to quantitive approaches.
  • A requirement for the assessment of quantitative approaches could be introduced, in the same way that Awarding Organisations are currently required to assess the quality of written communication.
  • Higher education should improve its signalling of what is required for progression to different disciplines within the sector.
  • Where mathematical content in A levels is beyond that covered at GCSE, this should be made explicit.
  • Exemplification and sharing of good practice could help develop better ways for students to acquire the necessary quantitative skills.
  • Further thought may be needed about how to teach and assess the application of mathematics in unfamiliar contexts.