Students demand lower grade boundaries after A-level Maths leaks

Student sitting exam
by Hayley Pearce | 16 July 2019

Exam board insists no student will be "unfairly disadvantaged"

Students have called for an exam board to lower A-level Maths grade boundaries after the statistics and mechanics paper was leaked at a centre.

Security breaches at an exam centre resulted in at least part of the Pearson Edexcel A-level Maths Paper 3: Statistics and Mechanics, sat by thousands of students on June 14, being leaked.

A Twitter user offered to sell it for £70, posting a picture showing two scribbled out exam questions. Two people were arrested in connection with the security breach.

Students have also said paper 1 was leaked, with magma004 saying: "First they have a pathetic second paper that's way too hard. Then they leak the first and third papers."

Pearson Edexcel insists no student will be unfairly disadvantaged as a result of the breach, but in a thread discussing the leak, TSR member JORGELFM14 said: “I completely ****ed up these exams and grade boundaries are gonna be so high. I hope Edexcel does something about it.”

But Itsmith thinks that the difficulty of the papers will instead lower the grade boundaries, saying: “If everyone ****s up the grade boundaries will be incredibly low. Everyone ****ed up in May 2013 and the grade boundaries for a particular paper were the lowest they've ever been.”

And _JENNIE000 said: “Ah man this sucks. Not only was the exam hard but it got leaked too, hopefully the grade boundaries are low (like real low).”

How might a leak affect grade boundaries?

Grade boundaries are the minimum number of marks you need to achieve a particular grade. They are adjusted each year after marking so the standard remains the same and students are not disadvantaged by a harder or easier paper.

Students who saw exam material in advance would likely perform better than students who hadn’t seen it, because they would have time to work out answers to questions beforehand. This has the potential to make grade boundaries artificially high.

In a statement, Pearson Edexcel says it will, like every year, “analyse the evidence from a review of students’ scripts and statistical data to ensure that the grade boundaries are set fairly and reflect the level of demand of this year’s papers.”

The exam board has revealed that actions and possible actions it will take to make grading fair for A-level Maths students are:

  • Removing the questions made available prior to the exam
  • Conducting additional statistical analysis on individual student and group performance
  • Withholding results for individual students who have been involved in malpractice

In a letter to university admissions officers, Pearson Edexcel’s head of schools Sharon Hague also said that, after conducting thorough analysis of exam scripts, grade boundary setting will be based the performance of students who sat the exams without access to any of the leaked material.

How widespread was the leak?

It is unclear how many people saw content from the paper and how much of it they saw, but Pearson Edexcel insists that there is “no evidence” that the leak was widespread, or that anyone saw more than the two questions posted on Twitter.

But TSR member Someone Bored said: “How can they say it's two questions that were blacked out? People in my school later informed me they found pictures of the whole mechanics paper, this is ridiculous.”

And throwaway_a321 said: “I know a lot more people who saw the two blacked out questions. The mechanics question could be worked out because some things were visible and you could guess the other information and also there were similar questions in text books.

“They would only remove those two questions if they had to though because I doubt that there would be a major shift in boundaries even if a thousand people saw the whole thing.”


Elentiya said: “The thing that's so difficult for me is today was supposed to be my final day of a levels and now I'm still having to think and worry about them.

“Stats and mechanics is usually my strong point and it feels really destroying knowing that others may get an advantage when I, and many others, have worked so hard for these exams.

“Edexcel's initial response was pitiful and not at all comforting, clearly their main aim in this is to downplay what happened to cover their own backs. 

"It feels like there's no way out from this. Either the whole cohort is punished and made to resit and have to go through all this again, or the exam board doesn't do anything and as much as they can say we won't be, some of us will be disadvantaged by this.

"If they remove the main two questions that were leaked (ignoring all the rest circling on private group chats) it feels incredibly unfair as some people will have spent much longer working on those questions, and will have lost time on others doing that.

“For me, coming out of the first maths exam that I was happy with how I'd done it was devastating to then discover that lots of people had already seen the leaked questions.”

But mnot said: “If the impact of this leak was wide enough that enough students successfully gained an advantage to affect grade boundaries then there will be a skew in the results (it will cause a bimodal distribution) A-level papers are marked question by question meaning that all this data will have very large sample sizes to check the information. Suspicious exam scores or trends can be correlated and further investigation can occur.

“The vast majority of papers completed normally will experience the normal process and I imagine Edexcel will be generous with grade boundaries as they will be conscious about the effect and ramifications this can have (so you will likely gain an extra few UMS points as a result of the leak).”

‘Accurate and fair’ grades

Ms Hague insisted that the leak would not result in anyone being unfairly disadvantaged, saying the exam board’s priority is “to ensure all grades that are issued to students in August are accurate and fair, and no students are unfairly disadvantaged as a result of the security breach.”

She added: “The ongoing investigations will enable us to identify any students who have gained an advantage as a result of the security breach, and to take action accordingly. Once all the marking is complete, we will undertake statistical analysis to establish whether there are patterns in the results that are unusual for a particular centre or student.

“We are also able to carry out a closer inspection of scripts to ensure correct answers are supported with working to demonstrate mathematical understanding.”

In a statement, an Ofqual spokesperson called the “irresponsible actions” of the centre which breached the security of the exam paper “completely unacceptable.”

They added: “We have a team closely monitoring Pearson’s investigation and its approach to awarding the qualification. Our aim is that the outcomes are fair to students.

“We will continue to work with the exam boards to make sure the remaining exams of the summer are safely taken. Once results are issued, we will review the summer, including this incident, and consider what more can be done to protect the integrity of the exam system.”

Why maths grade boundaries were always going to be tricky in 2019

This year was the first year when all A-level Maths students in England sat the new linear A-level, so setting grade boundaries for 2019’s students was always going to be a challenging undertaking, with a different process to previous years.

The AS units no longer count towards students’ final grades, and the statistics and mechanics module is a new compulsory part of the exam, and Ofqual says that these changes “make it challenging for senior examiners to judge the quality of student work compared to previous years.”

Its spokesperson added: “So our approach this summer in the new A-level maths will be the same as for the first awards of the other reformed A-levels. Exam boards will use predictions based on the cohort’s prior attainment at GCSE so that if this year’s cohort is similar, then we would expect the profile of grades to be similar to previous years.  We do this in order to be fair to this year’s students and to make sure that exam boards’ standards are aligned.”

Earlier in the 2019 exam season, Pearson Edexcel was slammed by students for the difficulty level of A-level Maths papers 1 and 2.

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