28 July 2017

Bridging the Gap... Revisited

Back in 2014 I wrote the post 'Bridging the Gap to A Level'. The concerns and ideas I shared in that post are very much on my mind this summer, as we approach the start of the new linear A level.

Experienced A level teachers know that every year there are many students who find the transition from GCSE to A level very challenging indeed. It's heartbreaking when a hardworking student struggles with A level maths because they have gaps in their underlying knowledge. I'm always wondering if there's anything we could do differently in the first few weeks of Year 12.

Will the new GCSE help?
I don't think that GCSE 9-1 has done much to lessen the gap between GCSE and A level. I previously thought that all the extra maths lessons would make a big difference. But the extra time in the classroom has not been spent improving fluency in algebra and tackling fundamental misconceptions - instead we have had to spend the extra time teaching all the new topics that were added to GCSE - quadratic sequences, functions, iteration, Venns, frequency trees and so on.

Perhaps I should wait until after GCSE results day to say this, but I have a feeling that a student will be able to get a Grade 6 with pretty poor algebra skills. At my school, the entry criteria for A level maths is a Grade 6.

If you're wondering how on earth it's possible to get a Grade 6 with poor algebra skills, I'll explain... There's a really wide range of topics in maths GCSE. A student might have memorised how to find a mean from grouped data. They might have memorised index laws. They might be good at Pythagoras, probability trees and scatter graphs. They might pick up a lot of marks on best buy questions...  But at the same time as picking up marks in all these random topics, they could write a load of algebraic nonsense in their exam. They might make fundamental algebraic errors when expanding brackets, or solving a simple equation, and it's still possible to get a decent mark - maybe a Grade 6.

These students might choose to do maths at A level, even though their algebra skills are such that they will get totally lost in the very first lessons of Year 12. We need to help these students catch up from day one.

Previous attempts
The Bridging The Gap Test that my school used in September 2016 was an hour long and tested a wide range of GCSE topics including algebraic fractions, linear graphs, surds and solving quadratic equations. The average test score was 79% for 95 students, with marks ranging from 50% to 100%.

The correlation between the September Bridging the Gap Test scores and February C1 Mock scores was positive, but it wasn't particularly strong. This either tells us that our early intervention was somewhat effective (there were students who did badly in the Bridging The Gap Test but did fairly well in the C1 Mock), or it tells us that the Bridging the Gap Test results were not a good predictor of future performance.
It's really hard to assess whether intervention is effective. In fact it's hard to assess whether anything in teaching is effective. One of my Year 12s still couldn't expand double brackets a week before his AS exams. I kid you not. It's crazy that I'd been teaching him calculus when he didn't have Year 8 algebra skills. I wonder what we could have done differently for him, and others like him.

A new entry assessment
I've written a new entry assessment that hopefully pinpoints exactly where the gaps lie, to allow for highly targeted intervention. You can download it from TES here. This test is:
  • short (because we are really pressed for time in Year 12 next year)
  • print-budget friendly (only one side of A4)
  • very quick and easy to mark 
  • highly specific 

This 15 minute test is intended to be issued in the first maths lessons of the year. Its purpose is to identify the students who need immediate intervention, and to identify which specific skills they need to be taught in order to access the basics of A level maths. 
This test is not intended to challenge the brightest students at all. To them it's just a quick and simple refresher. The content of the assessment is straightforward, in fact it's mostly Key Stage 3 stuff. This shouldn't be necessary, but it is. I don't want to patronise my new A level students so I will emphasise the expectation that every student should get full marks. Students with a Grade 6 or higher in their maths GCSE should easily be able to score 100% on this test, shouldn't they...? Hmm, we shall see.

If you're looking for a longer or more challenging baseline assessment for A level, Edexcel has a one hour assessment here. They have one for Further Maths classes too - this is a great way of assessing suitability for Further Maths.

A new approach to intervention
Testing and intervention needs to be immediate, allowing a student to change course if required. If a student decides to pick another subject instead of maths, they must do so in the first few days of Year 12 so they don't fall behind in their new subject. Some schools leave testing and intervention until the third week of term. I think that's too late.

Using the entry assessment to select students for compulsory attendance, I will run five separate intervention sessions within the first two weeks of Year 12. These will be on simplifying, expanding, factorising, solving and number (basic roots and indices, negatives, and the order of operations). The sessions will involve specific teaching, practice and a homework task on Hegarty Maths.

Once the initial two week intervention period is over, we'll run the usual after school help clinics all year round. The question is, how do we effectively support those students who really struggle throughout the two year course? How do we avoid the Us? How do we encourage the right work ethic? I'd love to hear what your school is planning to do.