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

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.


Dumbed down
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!

Some years ago the Leaving Certificate biology paper caused a national outcry when a question appeared on the frog, which had not been examined for several years and therefore was not "predicted". Distraught mothers phoned Joe Duffy on Liveline and the State Examinations Commission had to reassure pupils and parents that the unexpected appearance of what Dickens's Mr Gradgrind would have called "our commonest amphibian" would not lead to lower marks in the exam.

The frog crisis showed that for students and teachers alike, the only matter of concern is the extent to which the exams, in terms of topics covered and type of questions asked, pose no challenges.

The volume of writing required of students has been substantially reduced in most Leaving Certificate subjects. Essay-writing is taught by many teachers, not through continuous practice, but through giving pupils essays to memorise. This lack of practice at writing is apparent in the pitiful standard of written work submitted by many third-level students with good grades in Leaving Cert English. Very few students can take notes in lectures and most sit, like open-mouthed nestlings, waiting for the mother bird to feed them the magic notes to be memorised and regurgitated, undigested.

The Leaving Cert also favours pupils from higher-income backgrounds, who do better in the exam than those from lower-income families. Up to two-thirds of Leaving Certificate pupils buy extra tuition in the form of grinds. The school league tables, which have become a middle-class obsession, reflect the ability of parents in the high-ranking schools to pay for grinds – not just the quality of teaching in those schools.

App to calculate points
Teachers' unions ritually deplore the grind system (though many of the grinds are given by their members) but show little enthusiasm for a Leaving Cert that requires meaningful and imaginative forms of evaluation which might be less amenable to grinds.

On August 12th, German chancellor Angela Merkel visited a second-level school in Berlin which had reopened after a six-week break. Irish students were then beginning the ninth week of their 12-week summer holiday. As Irish second-level students spend so many fewer days in school than their counterparts in most developed countries, it is hardly surprising that their standard of performance in the Leaving Certificate has fallen.

It is unlikely that any of the students that Chancellor Merkel addressed will need an iPhone app to calculate their points. It is also unlikely that if some of those students become graphic designers they will depict the Earth spinning backwards, as it is depicted on the promotional video for Project Maths on the website of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

Sean Byrne lectures in economics at Dublin Institute of Technology