Number taking higher maths has rocketed

Significant dropdown rate to ordinary level just before Leaving Cert

The number taking Leaving Cert higher-level maths has rocketed over the past two years, from 8,235 in 2011 to 13,014 in 2013, an increase of more than 58 per cent. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

The number taking Leaving Cert higher-level maths has rocketed over the past two years, from 8,235 in 2011 to 13,014 in 2013, an increase of more than 58 per cent. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

Wed, Aug 14, 2013, 09:13

The main focus of interest in this year’s Leaving Cert results – as it was last year – is in the fallout from the new Project Maths curriculum and the response of students to the inducement of 25 bonus CAO points to all higher-level candidates who get grade D3 or better.

The biggest problem for those keen to see more good grades in higher maths has been the significant dropdown rate to ordinary level by higher level students just before the Leaving Cert.

Until the introduction of both the Project Maths curriculum and the 25 bonus points in 2012, more than 20 per cent who registered for higher maths the previous October dropped down before the exam; 14,865 students registered for higher maths this year and 13,014 sat the exam – a dropdown rate of 12.5 per cent.

The number taking higher maths has also rocketed over the past two years, from 8,235 in 2011 to 13,014 in 2013, an increase of more than 58 per cent. This year 17 per cent (1,883) more students transferred from ordinary to higher level compared to 2012.

More than 90 per cent of this cohort got the 25 bonus points, with fewer than 10 per cent or 186 of them failing to get grade D3 or more in higher maths.

Overall, 442 students, or 3.4 per cent of those who sat higher maths, failed the exam in 2013, which is less than half the failure rate in the three science subjects of biology, physics and chemistry, although still significantly higher than the rates of 1.7 and 0.4 of higher-level students in English and Irish.

From the perspective of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, the State Examinations Commission (SEC) and the Department of Education, as well as employers of Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) graduates, the success of both the new curriculum and the bonus points in attracting such an increase, in both the numbers taking the subject at higher level and their success rate, will be a cause for celebration.


Misgivings
The only cloud on this horizon is the misgivings of some maths teachers at second and third level at what they perceive to be the dumbing down of higher level maths to achieve the 58 per cent increase in uptake.

The truth or otherwise of their concerns will be revealed by the performance of students who made the move to higher level in degree programmes for which maths is a core subject.

The headline figure of over 5,000 students failing maths overall – and thus being denied a third-level place in most courses where passing maths is an entry requirement – is very much a thing of the past. However the numbers failing are still significant, at 3,760 this year, a modest drop of 83 on last year.

Most failures are at ordinary level, which leads to questions about the effectiveness of persuading students to study maths at foundation level when appropriate, or as with many schools, where the subject is not offered at foundation level.

An analysis by the SEC on behalf of the department, 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.

Former minister for education Mary Hanafin increased the percentage grade for oral Irish to 40 per cent, aiming to increase the numbers taking Irish generally and at higher level.


Results of initiative
Ms Hanafin was long gone from the department when the results of her initiative began to emerge. Compared to the numbers taking maths (which in my view indicates the total numbers of school-based full-time Leaving Cert students), more than 15 per cent of full-time Leaving Cert students do not sit Irish. Evidence from the Irish results for 2012 and 2013 show the increase in the oral component to 40 per cent has halted and reversed this trend. As a proportion of those sitting maths, the uptake for Irish at all three levels has increased from 85.17 per cent to 85.83 per cent. The numbers taking Irish at higher level has increased from 37 per cent to 38 per cent.

The success rate of these students in securing a grade C or higher is more than 90 per cent, by far the highest of the mainstream subjects.