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Report criticises level of mathematics in A-level science

An article on the BBC website says that a report by SCORE has found that A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions to prepare students to progress to science degrees or related jobs.

SCORE is an organisation described on its website as “a partnership of organisations, which aims to improve science education in UK schools and colleges by supporting the development and implementation of effective education policy” and lists as partners Association for Science Education, Institute of Physics, Royal Society, Royal Society of Chemistry and Society of Biology.

Professor Graham Hutchings, chairman of SCORE, is quoted saying “Our findings are worrying. A significant proportion of the mathematical requirements put in place by the examinations regulator, Ofqual, for each of the sciences were simply not assessed and, if they were, it was often in a very limited way.”

Here are some quotes cherry-picked from the report’s findings:

For biology, chemistry and physics, it was felt there were underpinning areas of mathematics missing from the requirements and that their exclusion meant students were not adequately prepared for progression in that subject. For example, for physics many of the respondents highlighted the absence of calculus, differentiation and integration, in chemistry the absence of calculus and in biology, converting between different units.

There is concern among the science community that competition between awarding organisations discourages them from setting examinations or assessment tasks that might appear more difficult, for example by including both more challenging and more mathematical content.

A perceived consequence, raised repeatedly by the science community in the online survey, is that if mathematical content areas are frequently not assessed then these areas will not be taught or practised in depth. If areas within the mathematical requirements are not taught or practised, it will limit students’ access to the subject, their ability to understand scientific concepts and reduce their mathematical fluency. Instead, there should be a broader spread of mathematical skills assessed every year to accurately reflect the mathematical requirements and encourage teachers and students to practise them.

The article also mentions Nuffield Foundation research showing larger discrepancies in the skills assessed by different exam boards, and quotes an Ofqual spokesman on their research in which universities, employers and teachers offered concerns over the mathematical content of A-levels.

Source: A-level sciences ‘lack the maths students need’.

Report: SCORE Mathematics in science. (The policy report contains a readable overview of the methodology and findings)

4 Responses to “Report criticises level of mathematics in A-level science”

  1. Avatar Peter

    I think this report misses out that those who want to progress to a science degree are told to take A-level maths as well. The courses seem to be tailored so that those without maths skills can take just the science and learn something, but those who want to progress will get nearly all the skills they need for University from A-level maths.
    It’s a weird situation, but it kind of works. Not much synergy between the two subjects though.

  2. Avatar Christian Perfect

    That’s a good point, but many universities don’t require A-Level maths for science degrees. They’re preferred, but not required. Someone (HoDoMS, I think) circulated a survey of whether science departments required maths at A-Level, and very few did. I wish I could find it, though maybe it was a not-for-sharing thing.

    Certainly, from my experience at Newcastle’s maths support unit, a non-negligible number of people are allowed onto natural science degrees without A-Level maths.

  3. Avatar Peter Rowlett

    I think Peter is right that there could be synergy between the A-levels but then not everyone takes all options. I think Christian may be referring to the ACME Mathematical Needs report which was illuminating on the way universities advertise the mathematical requirements of their non-mathematics degrees, with many degrees requiring A-level content in the first year but admitting students with a grade C at GCSE.


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