Bonuses multiply candidates taking higher level maths

Since the new policy came in the number taking the higher paper has rocketed

Leaving Cert students at Belvedere College, Dublin, about to sit an exam in June of this year. Photograph: Alan Betson.

Leaving Cert students at Belvedere College, Dublin, about to sit an exam in June of this year. Photograph: Alan Betson.


As in 2013, the main focus of interest in the 2014 Leaving Cert results is in the fall-out from the new Project Maths curriculum and the response to the 25 bonus CAO points for those who get at least a D3 in the higher level paper.

The biggest problem for those seeking an increase in the numbers of students achieving good grades in higher level maths has been the significant drop down to ordinary level on the part of higher level students in the months and weeks preceding the Leaving Cert exams in June each year.

Until the introduction of both the Project Maths curriculum and the 25 bonus points in 2012, this figure was always over 20 per cent, or one in five of those who registered with the State Examination Commission (SEC) in the October before the Leaving Cert.

Some 17,065 students registered to sit higher level maths this year and 14,326 sat the exam in June, a drop-down rate of 16 per cent or a loss of 2,739 prospective higher level maths students.

The drop-downs among those who registered for higher level Irish and English is 6 per cent, so the fear of failing higher level maths still drives a significant number of students down to ordinary level in the final months before the Leaving Cert.

This may reflect the fact that the curriculum is still very challenging for some students, and their decision to drop levels before the exam could be wisely based and taken on the advice of their teachers, or it could still be based on an irrational fear of failure among a cohort of students, who have the ability to secure their D3 to achieve 25 bonus points.

Notwithstanding the drop-down numbers, those taking the subject at higher level has rocketed over the past three years from 8,235 in 2011 to 14,326 in 2014; an increase of more than 74 per cent in three years.

In 2014 a further 1,312 students – or 10 per cent – transferred upwards from ordinary to higher level over and above the 2013 figure.

More than 95.5 per cent of this cohort secured the additional 25 bonus points with less than 4.5 per cent, or 645 of this number, failing to secure a minimum of D3 in the higher level paper.

This failure rate in higher level maths is far lower than the failure rate at higher level in the three science subjects of biology (6.9 per cent), physics (8.3 per cent) and chemistry (9 per cent), which are among the highest failure rates in all mainstream higher level papers. But the maths failure rates are still significantly higher than those of (1.3 per cent) and (0.6 per cent) among higher level students of English and Irish.

From the perspective of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), the State Examination Commission (SEC) and Department of Education and Skills (DES), as well as employers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates, the success of both the new curriculum and the bonus points in attracting such a huge increase, in both the numbers of students taking the subject at this level and their success rate, will be a cause for much celebration.

The only cloud is the misgivings of some maths teachers at both second and third level about what they perceive to be the move away from pure maths to a more real-life situations curriculum, to achieve the 74 per cent increase in uptake over the past three years.

The truth or otherwise of their concerns will be revealed by the performance of higher-level maths students, who do degree programmes in which maths is a core subject.

The recent headline figure of 5,000 students failing maths overall, and so being denied a third-level place in most courses (where passing maths is a basic entry requirement), is very much a thing of the past, although the numbers failing are still significant, standing at 3,781 (7.4 per cent of all maths candidates) this year, a modest increase of 21 on last year.

Given that there are an additional 1,400 students taking the Leaving Cert this year, this is not a bad outcome.

Most of these failures occur at ordinary level, which leads to a question about the effectiveness of persuading students to study maths at foundation level where appropriate, or about how the subject is not offered at foundation level in many schools.

An analysis by the SEC on behalf of the DES, to identify any pattern of high failure rates in ordinary level maths in particular schools might be a useful exercise in helping to further reduce the numbers failing this vital subject.

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