A levels: Physics students ‘double penalised’ by grading

A-level physics students are being “doubly penalised” by being severely graded in the subject itself as well as others that they commonly take in combination with it, new research shows.

Analysis by FFT Education Data Lab echoes other research in finding that A-level physics tends to be “more severely graded” than other subjects.

But it also finds that physics students are often further “penalised” because many take the subject in combination with other science and maths subjects that are graded in a similar way.

The organization says this is unlikely to matter if students plan to study physics at university – as other applicants will be in a similar position.

But if a student is going to pursue a different subject at a degree level, they may be at a disadvantage, the researchers say, due to having a lower grade than they might have achieved in another subject.

Physics teachers have told Tes that they are worried that the findings could put some students off studying the subject at A level.

In order to look at how severe grading was in physics, FFT compared to A-level results from 2019 in subjects with at least 6,000 entrants.

A-level physics ‘more severely graded’

For students entered into three or more A levels, it found physics was the most severely graded – meaning students generally received lower grades than they would in other subjects – followed by further maths, chemistry, biology, computer science, and maths. It found that sociology, media and art and design were the least severely graded.

It then looked at the 28,970 students who took maths, physics and at least one other A level in 2019, and found that the most commonly taken subject alongside these were chemistry (9,291), followed by further maths (8,317) and then computer science ( 3,488).

In a blog published on its site, FFT concludes: “However we look at it, grades in physics tend to be more severely graded than other subjects.

“Many physics students are also further penalised by taking it in combination with other severely graded subjects, particularly chemistry and further maths.”

Manish Patel, an assistant headteacher and physics teacher at a secondary school in the Midlands, said that the data would stop some students from taking the subject if they were aware of it.

“Students, like electricity, look for the path of least resistance. Success is important, so if students are aware of grades being pulled down, it would certainly stop many applications,” he added.

Ben Ford, head of physics at an independent school in South London, said he already had parents at sixth-form open days asking if the subject would be too hard for their children, and that data like this could back up their concerns.

He added: “My advice to Year 11 students will remain the same: take the subjects you will enjoy studying intensively for two years and will attain highest in.

“I still think many A-level subjects will be supported by studying physics and I also think physics could have a place for many students who may be interested in the American-style mixed-discipline degrees.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said the organization had carried out “an extensive program of evidence-based work”, and in summer 2019 required exam boards “to award more generously at grade A* and A” for A-level sciences including physics, and modern foreign languages.

They said that Ofqual had done this so these subjects did not become “statistically more severely graded in the future” and to prevent perceived grading incision from undermining public confidence in these qualifications. All exam boards adhered to this.

They added: “We concluded in 2018 there was not a compelling case to adjust grading standards in A-levels in physics, chemistry, biology, French, German or Spanish. Our position has not changed from this. We based that decision on a wide range of evidence, not just statistical models of subject difficulty, including concerns expressed in Higher Education.

“The pandemic resulted in exams being canceled for 2020 and 2021 by the government. Grading for this summer’s return to exams, including A-level physics, is expected to be more generous than the last exams in 2019.”

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