Exam standards leave many students ill-equipped to thrive at third level
Opinion: from maths to English, evidence suggests demands on students are less strenuous
Sitting the Leaving Cert: if the expected question does not come up, distraught mothers are liable to phone up Joe Duffy. Photograph: Peter Thursfield
The news that the bonus points awarded for higher-level maths in the Leaving Certificate has resulted in a large increase in those taking the subject at that level and being awarded those points will not gladden the hearts of lecturers who will encounter those students on third-level courses next month.
The majority of the additional students obtained only D grades but the 25 extra points awarded for this very modest achievement will have catapulted many of them into third-level courses for which they are not intellectually equipped. After the new higher-level Project Maths exam last June, teachers described the paper as “very fair”. One explained that this meant the questions set were closely based on the sample questions.
Project Maths is intended to make maths more relevant to “everyday life” and to foster “thinking skills”. The problem with maths education in Ireland, however, is not that many people cannot accurately measure their windows for curtains but that not enough students have the level of maths on leaving school needed to pursue courses in science, engineering and technology. Project Maths purports to solve this problem by removing vectors and matrices, which are very relevant to engineering and IT, and reducing the amount of calculus taught, although calculus is the area of maths with the widest range of applications. The promoters of Project Maths claim that the course emphasises practical problem-solving. But the questions set are as contrived as those so wittily lampooned by Stephen Leacock in his essay A, B and C, the Human Elements in Mathematics.
If Project Maths has improved the problem-solving skills of the students who studied it, why was an iPhone app developed which enables students to calculate their points from their Leaving Certificate grades, ie to add six two- or three-digit numbers? The developers of the app stated, without a hint of irony, that some students taking higher-level maths were having difficulty adding the bonus points for this subject.
Maths is not the only Leaving Cert subject in which the required level of competence has been greatly reduced. Although the suggestion that the examination is being dumbed down is vehemently rejected by the teachers’ unions, most teachers of more than 20 years’ experience admit privately that it is now much easier to get higher grades in most subjects than it was back then.
The lowering of standards is most obvious in the case of English. In the 1980s students taking higher-level English were asked to discuss the proposition that “though all is eventually resolved in Wuthering Heights, there is a great sense of what has been lost”. In 2011 the proposition for discussion on the same novel was: “Catherine Earnshaw is a character that readers can like and dislike”. Three “likes” and three “dislikes” and an A1 is in the bag!