Mathematical errors


‘Human error” and spending cuts in the Department of Education are the main reasons the State Examinations Commission (SEC) has offered for its various mistakes when setting some of this year’s Leaving and Junior certificate exam papers. Minister for Education, Ruairí Quinn, who asked the commission to investigate its own embarrassing failure, remains confident the SEC has a “robust system in place” to respond to exam paper errors. The commission in its report, rightly, has apologised to the candidates affected by its unintentional errors – mainly those who took maths at Leaving and Junior Cert level. The examiners, in marking their papers have adjusted for the errors made in some of the exam questions, thereby ensuring that candidates have not been penalised. Yet for those students sitting a critical exam, such an experience can prove deeply upsetting, and damaging to their self-confidence. Certainly the exam-setting team, when checking the exam papers before they were released, should have spotted the errors, as the SEC chairman, Dick Langford has readily acknowledged.

The SEC, in its defence, cites two mitigating factors: the crisis in public finances and the challenge that the introduction of the Project Maths syllabus presented. Cutbacks in public spending – for which the SEC seemed unprepared – resulted in 40 per cent of the commission’s assessment division retiring. Many opted for early retirement, attracted by the generous terms of the public service scheme And, in addition, the phased rollout of the Project Maths initiative placed an extra strain on SEC resources, as this required “a very large increase” in the number of maths papers produced in the transition phase. It could indeed be said that this year the SEC failed its own exam test. Nevertheless the commission can be credited with learning from its own mistakes. For it has openly confronted and publicly acknowledged its failure. It has apologised to those affected, and offered a firm purpose of amendment. That must be delivered on to ensure the integrity of the examination system.

Trends this year confirm the introduction of bonus points for those who sit higher maths and achieve a pass or higher mark, has made a difference. Some 13,000 students sat higher maths, and nearly all (96.7 per cent) achieved bonus point marks. Clearly five years of austerity have changed the outlook of many students, and heavily influenced career preferences.

Increasingly, the employment needs of the Irish economy, both in traditional growth areas, like science and technology, and new growth areas, such as agriculture and food science, are likely to be met by more Irish graduates, working at home. It is to be hoped that, for many future graduates with the requisite professional skills, the job opportunities for once may then be greater in Ireland than overseas.