Secondary Data on Academic Progress

What are the strengths and limitations of using secondary data to research the academic progress of students in schools?

This challenging question came up in the methods in Context section of the November 2021 AQA A-Level Sociology exam, and students found it difficult according the Examiners Report, with significant numbers focussing only on quantitative secondary data, rather than both quantitative and qualitative, and many answers making generalisation and failing to pick up on the specifics of different types of data, let alone APPLY these to the topic at hand which was student progress.

So this applied research methods topic is probably worth going over in some depth! (Remember, even though this came up relatively recently it can still come up this year, especially since the examiners know it’s a challenging topic for many students!).

The Question and Item

Applying material from Item C and your knowledge of research methods, evaluate the strengths and limitations of using secondary data to investigate the
academic progress of pupils in schools.

Notes towards an answer

The item suggest that you should focus on both quantitive and qualitative forms of secondary data.

And with methods in context questions you need to at least try and apply the strengths and limitations of the data to the actual topic in the question: academic progress!

Secondary quantitative data to research academic progress

This topic is partly dealt with in this post: Official Statistics on Education: Strengths and Limitations

Official Statistics include exam results and SATs. They have excellent representativeness and usually these are easy to compare, but with education statistics, there are several different versions to measure progress and this can get confusing, also GSCE results changed from A-C to numerical form which makes comparing more difficult over time.

However, official stats do not tell us WHY students achieve at different rates, also for Gypsy and Roma children, many don’t sit formal exams so there is missing data here.

Schools may also record their own quantitative data in the form of internal tests (not official statistics) which provide more insight than official statistics but there are access issues.

Secondary qualitative data to research academic progress

Secondary qualitative data will give you more insight into WHY students achieve at different rates, and such data includes OFSTED reports, school progress reports, the written work of students and even personal documents such as diaries.

Written work in particular can give you an insight into the quality of feedback students get and also how much effort they are making, while personal documents can tell you what is going on in students’ lives outside of education.

The main problem with both of these sources is access.

This topic is covered in depth in this post: Assessing the usefulness of secondary data for researching education. NB this post is broader than this topic, and some of the sources mentioned in it may not be useful for measuring academic progress.


The AQA’s mark scheme for the November 2021 Sociology A-level Education with Theory and Methods exam paper.

For more information on exams see my exams and essay writing page.





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