Recent reports and anecdotal evidence have highlighted the worrying trend that students entering university and employment are lacking the maths skills they need to support their progression into jobs in science.
Today, SCORE (Science Community Representing Education), a collaboration of leading science organisations including the Society of Biology, launched a report which analyses the type, extent and difficulty of mathematics within the 2010 science A-level exams. The report highlights new evidence which shows that A-levels in a range of subjects, including biology, fail to equip students with an appropriate level of mathematical skills. This, and research revealing the differences in mathematical difficulty between different exam boards’ papers, has led the Society of Biology, as a member of SCORE, to make recommendations for the upcoming A-level reform.
The report considered whether the type of mathematics in the science exams was suitable for progression within the subject’s field, the proportion of the examination that depended on mathematical knowledge, and the complexity of the mathematical questions. Key findings included:
- A large number of the mathematical requirements listed in the 2010 Biology, Chemistry and Physics AS and A2 specifications are assessed in a limited way or not at all within the exam papers.
- There is a measurable variation between awarding organisations in terms of the amount and difficulty of the mathematics that is assessed in science A-levels.
- The exam questions that did require maths are not felt to be difficult enough: too many involve only single step questions, require only simple recall, and are set only in familiar contexts. For example, in Biology A-level, across all five exam boards, only 0-2% of the A-level contained mathematical questions requiring more than simple recall.
- Some mathematical concepts included in science exams – for example, orders of magnitude and using the slope of a tangent to a curve as a measure of the rate of change of a quantity – do not follow on logically from maths GCSE.
The report identifies the important role professional bodies, like the Society of Biology, can play in A-level design. As an independent organisation, capable of bringing together teachers, academics and representatives from industry, we are perfectly placed to ensure A-levels are fit for purpose, and we could provide the basis of a National Subject Committee for the development of A-level qualifications. Something we highlight in our response to Gove’s recent announcement for plans to enable elite universities to set A-level syllabuses and exams.
As Head of Education, I sat on the steering group for this project, and many of our members, including teachers, employers and academics gave up their time to complete surveys on expected assessment requirements or review exam papers. We are grateful to all our members who took the time to input into this valuable piece of research.