Points, damn points and statistics!

Points, damn points and statistics!

Points, damn points and statistics!


The countdown to the Leaving Certificate results has begun and leads us to the thorny subject of ‘points’ once more. The introduction of a 25% bonus for Leaving Certificate higher level mathematics a number of years ago was presented as a prosaic approach to encourage leaving cycle students to opt for higher maths. Much has been written about the decreasing popularity of mathematics with ramifications for our young people from every day usage to the creation of industry-desirable, employable graduates.

‘Over recent years, growing concern has been expressed regarding mathematics in the senior cycle of post-primary education, especially in relation to the numbers of candidates achieving low grades in the Leaving Certificate Ordinary level mathematics examination papers. However, there has also been concern at the low level of mathematical knowledge and skills shown by some students proceeding to further and higher education, and their inability to cope with basic concepts and skill requirements in the mathematical aspects of their courses. O’Donohoe in particular, noted observations by university lecturers regarding the lack of fluency in fundamental arithmetic and algebraic skills, gaps in basic knowledge in important areas such as trigonometry and complex numbers, and an inability to use or apply mathematics except in the simplest or most practiced way.’ (Review of Mathematics in Post-Primary Education – a discussion paper, NCCA, October 2005)

With low numbers opting to take higher level mathematics, attempts were made at making the subject more attractive. The solution? Add on a bonus. Simple?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, it did increase the number of students opting for higher level maths. Figures increased 13% in the two years since this bonus was introduced. The Irish Times reported in June of this year that,
‘The number of students planning to sit higher level mathematics in this week’s Leaving Cert exams is up 13 per cent to a new record tally due to the influence of bonus points for the higher papers. One in three students have entered to sit higher level mathematics compared to less than one in five just four years ago’. The Irish Times, 2 June, 2014.

Do more students leaving school have a better understanding of trigonometry? Possibly. Do they use it in their chosen careers? Possibly not. Most students eyed up the bonus for what it was – a slightly cynical way of increasing the numbers of students taking the higher course – but it was unlikely to have altered their final CAO applications. This had a two point impact. The first was that maths-related college courses did not attract noticeably larger applications and the second was that students with a greater aptitude for maths may have overtaken others in the points race for courses that were not connected in any way, in some cases disadvantaging the more suited students in the pursuit for example of a liberal arts degree.

It is a bit like Irish directions. The famous retort when asked for directions is not to start from here. The top ten jobs in the world at the moment weren’t there 10 years ago, so it would be better to start at the beginning by encouraging mathematical strengths in students – by a aptitude-led curriculum. Children, like us all, want to pursue areas where they can be successful. The curriculum needs to be tailored to the students, not the other way around. There is a need to prepare students for a world where transferrable skills will be the benchmark by which they can find success in the workplace. A curriculum which is definitive and restrictive does nothing to further the capacity and adaptability of a workforce.

It will be interesting to see what happens this year with a 13% percentage increase in students taking higher maths. We need to track how it impacts on points, if there is a corresponding movement up or down in the related college course points and how does that reflect on the jobs for graduates. In 2012, The Irish Independent reported,‘Points for more than 200 college courses have risen by 25 points this year, with science, computing, and maths accounting for almost a quarter of those.’

Education is not the sole purpose of education – the Leaving Certificate is the only a way for most students to progress their choice of study.

The problem remains – the Leaving Certificate examination is wrong, wrong, wrong!