Getting results from the Leaving Cert

Thu, Aug 16, 2012, 01:00

Sir, – As the Leaving Certificate results are announced I am asking that the media would refrain from referring to “failure rates” in mathematics – and in any other subject – for the following reasons:

1. It is impossible to “fail” maths or any other Irish State exam subject. Failure was abolished 30 years ago by the Department of Education. Grades E and F and even “NG” are not fail grades, although they continue to be referred to in that way in the media, and in urban myth.

2. A public misconception that failure is a real category is driven each year principally by broadcast and newsprint media. The public mind can be changed in this regard if media personnel will undertake not to refer to the concept of failing exam subjects.

3. “Failure” is a derogatory term. Young people at 18-19 years of age should not be stigmatised with failure, especially so when they have not failed anything. Such a stigma may lead to depression, lack of self-esteem and in the worst case, suicide. For those who accept the branding of “failure” it may last with them through life.

4. It is sometimes wrongly stated that if a student gets less than a D3 in mathematics he or she will be barred from entry into third level education. Education correspondents could publish a list of all the third-level courses in Ireland that have no mathematics entry requirement. This would go some way towards assuaging the sense of worthlessness of students who do not score highly in mathematics and who have been conditioned to think of an E or F grade as failure.

5. There is an unwillingness by commentators on Leaving Certificate mathematics results to compare ability at mathematics, a natural and normal human characteristic, with the normal probability distribution.

In any human characteristic graded on a scale of 0 to 100, 25 per cent of the population will have an ability of 40 or less, ie will fall into the grades E, F and “NG” used by the Department of Education. Thus the annual media representation of 10 per cent of the annual Leaving Cert ordinary level mathematics class scoring less than 40 per cent as a national crisis in mathematics education is a distortion. In fact, 10 per cent of students scoring below the 40 per cent mark is well above normal human performance.

This year the process of making the cultural change needed to lead the public to a better understanding of students’ performances can begin with an appreciation of young people’s inherent natural differences.

There needs to be an acceptance of the mathematical strengths and weaknesses present in every cohort of 54,000 young people, and a need to publicise the third-level options open to those who score less than 40 per cent in mathematics. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL BRENNAN,

Oakley Lawn,

Earls Court, Waterford.

Sir, – Now dat Project Maths has bin such a triumf, cud we hav a stab at Project English nxt yr? Plz? Tnx. – Yours, etc,

OLAN MCGOWAN,

Landscape Gardens,

Churchtown,

Dublin 14.

Sir, – The new mathematics curriculum, Project Maths, requires, among other skills, a greater understanding of statistics and their interpretation in real-life contexts. Let’s put these skills to use by analysing the first batch of Project Maths higher level results. Your paper reports a staggering 37 per cent increase (from 16 per cent to 22 per cent) in the numbers sitting higher level maths this year compared to last. Now if the new syllabus is of the same difficulty, one would expect the rate of failure to remain roughly the same. Instead, the rate dramatically fell 23 per cent (from 3 per cent down to 2.3 per cent).

A critically thinking Project Maths student would no doubt look to explain this apparent anomaly. It seems unlikely that this year’s batch of students just happens to the smartest (by quite a margin) in the past 20 years. The student is instead likely to conclude that the exam has been dumbed-down and/or marked more easily than previous years (as has been alleged by markers themselves).

In the year that the Government has introduced this hideously expensive new syllabus, which seems more likely: unparalleled intelligence or cooked books? So how did your Editorial (August 15th) react to these revealing and damning statistics? Project Maths has delivered! Don’t worry; despite the lack of critical analysis, you’d be in little danger of failing . . . – Yours, etc,

DANIEL LYNCH,

Teacher of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics,

Gonzaga College SJ, Dublin 6.

Sir, – What will it take for Leaving Certificate apologists to admit that it is a barbaric and inherently flawed means to assess young people’s aptitude and capacity?

What value to each person, to their immediate academic or employment career does the Leaving Certificate add, beyond exposure to a bizarre market for college places? Appeals to “encourage students to realise their maximum potential” in the Leaving Certificate (Richard Marron, August 14th) is a nice sound bite, but what exactly does this mean?

Without even beginning to consider socio-economic factors, it is absurd to think that we each have the same chance to perform well in the Leaving Certificate. Our brains do not all work the same.

Mr Marron attests “the hard fact remains that success in the Leaving Cert is crucial if one is aiming for university”. Success is rather subjective when it comes to the Leaving Certificate and depends on your expectations. I would strongly disagree with his analysis. Success does not begin or end with the Leaving Certificate. In my own case, given my difficulty in remembering people’s names in daily life, I was always going to struggle with random pieces of literature in whatever language.

Back then I joked that I got my first CAO choice, but on the wrong list. However, thanks to those who inspired, motivated and encouraged me in the Dublin Institute of Technology, I ended up undertaking an MSc and PhD. My postgrad study both required knowledge and understanding to be demonstrated and applied. Today in the real world, just as I enjoy the arts and appreciate the value of modern languages, when I am working on scientific research I make sure I have the book open in front of me.

We are regularly told by college and business leaders that young adults are ill-prepared and ill-equipped for the reality that awaits them when their bubble bursts each August.

Is regurgitating in three hours what you learnt in three years the only fair system for transitioning between second and third levels? Surely it is not beyond us to put in place something more meaningful and useful. – Yours, etc,

Dr JARLATH MOLLOY,

Rue Fabre,

Montreal, Quebec,

Canada.

Sir, – I did so well in my Leaving Cert that I was invited back to repeat it the following year. . . – Yours, etc,

TOM GILSENAN,

Elm Mount,

Beaumont,

Dublin 9.

Sir, – I am struggling to identify the factors that would explain the dramatic fall in the number of students failing mathematics. I am curious as to how students could have demonstrated such a marked improvement in this subject?

In 2009 the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) reported that Ireland’s mean mathematics scores had fallen below the OECD average. The study, which examined 15- year-olds across 39 OECD countries, found that Ireland had fallen 16 points since students were last tested in 2003 (the second largest decline among participating countries).

I found it strange to hear this week’s positive news regarding students’ proficiency in mathematics, given that many of the students receiving their results may even have been participants in Pisa 2009. Could Pisa really have got it so wrong? – Yours, etc,

Dr RAYMOND LYNCH, MIEI,

Lecturer, Department of

Education and Professional

Studies, University of Limerick,

Castletroy, Limerick.

Sir, – The annual media fest around participation and achievement levels in particular Leaving Certificate established subjects is with us again, with Project Maths stealing the limelight at the expense even of science subjects.

Like the discussion document recently submitted to the National Competitiveness Council by Seán McDonagh and Tony Quinlan, the emphasis is on the success of the individual, her/his contribution to the labour market, national competitiveness and GDP.

While such instrumentalism is understandable, it reflects a narrow, flawed philosophy of education based on piecemeal rather than holistic thinking, on short-termism and knee-jerk policy- making, on being “bound by” rather than “bowing to” market forces.

The overriding emphasis on mathematics and science challenges the well-established Irish curriculum principle that students are best served by a broad and balanced curriculum. Language, particularly mother tongue, is arguably a more significant avenue to learning as it pervades all other subjects, including mathematics. Equally strong cases can be made for other forms of knowledge. For example, we frequently assert that “music is a universal language” with consequent potential, while economists such as Richard Florida have documented the synergistic relationship between “the arts” and the economy.

Given the obvious importance of civic republicanism in Ireland today, there is a strong case for positive discrimination in favour of moral and citizenship education.

Understandable concerns about the state of the country should not be allowed to eclipse the bigger picture. Was it mathematical or scientific underachievement on the part of bankers, developers and regulators that created national insolvency?

The awarding of bonus points for maths has certainly increased participation rates. This consolidates a utilitarian attitude to education in the minds of students. Given the predictive value of Leaving Certificate math grades it will also have a “compound interest” effect as students progress through higher education.

If, as Howard Gardner suggests, there are multiple intelligences, is it not a gross injustice to privilege the cognitive abilities measured in mathematics examinations over the talents and capabilities nurtured by other disciplines? A “back to basics” approach will impact negatively on the holistic development of the individual and, inevitably, on the quality of our social, civic and intellectual life.

Before it’s too late, let’s reconsider our obsession with appeasing the markets and foster a culture of debate, dissent and discovery in our young people (Ruairí McKiernan, Opinion, August 13th) at a time when the rarity of the “Irish thinker” reveals a society that is “bereft of depth” (Opinion, Desmond Fennell, July 2nd).

The exclusive focus on homo economicus is deeply worrying. While all are in favour of economic progress and prosperity, the education of the next generation for citizenship, for life, love, living and giving, should not be sacrificed on the altar of economic recovery.

Have we learned nothing from the demise of the Celtic Tiger? – Yours, etc,

Dr JIM GLEESON,

Department of Education and Professional Studies,

University of Limerick

Prof CIARAN SUGRUE,

School of Education, UCD,

Belfield,

Dublin 4.