Surprise jump in grades for Leaving Cert ordinary-level maths after difficult paper

Rise in honours maths numbers stalls as ‘uplift’ effect of bonus points at its limit

For every Leaving Cert student, today is a landmark occasion in a very personal educational journey. But the results are also being closely watched by politicians, teachers and industry figures to see what they have to say about the quality of Irish school-leavers.

The rate of increase in students taking higher-level mathematics has slowed to a standstill, and this combined with an increase in the failure rate will raise some concerns among high-tech employers in Ireland.

The percentage of students taking higher-level maths at 27.4 per cent is virtually unchanged from last year (27.3 per cent) but significantly higher than the 16 per cent who took this option four years ago.

The trend indicates that the "uplift" effect of the 25 CAO bonus points introduced in 2012 has reached its limit, and there will be further questions raised about results at ordinary level.

There was uproar over paper 1 in the ordinary exam three months ago as students and teachers complained of confusing language and questions they said appeared to stray off the curriculum. The State Examinations Commission (SEC) adjusted its marking scheme in response to the controversy, and the outcome is a surprisingly healthy set of results.

The proportion of students who got an A, B or C in ordinary level maths is up from 66.7 per cent last year to 73.7 per cent, while the percentage awarded E, F or NG has dropped from 8.6 per cent to 5.9 per cent.

The outcome will fuel complaints from some educationalists that the awarding of Leaving Cert grades are “gamed” to ensure a relatively consistent distribution each year. It will also provide further ammunition to critics of Project Maths who believe the introduction of the new curriculum is leading to a lowering of standards.

A number of maths examiners have complained privately of what they perceive as a decision to “go easy” on ordinary- level candidates this year, saying it raised questions over the credibility of the marking system. Some have expressed concern about speaking publicly in case they are released from examiner duties in future years.

‘Fully consistent’

However, the SEC said it had followed “established practice” this year in assessing papers, noting the marking schemes in all subjects would be published after the issuing of Leaving Cert results. The SEC also said it was “satisfied that the range of tasks set on the 2015 ordinary-level mathematics examination was fully consistent with the syllabus”.

For other subjects in the Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) camp, the news was better, with a 19 per cent increase in the number of students taking higher level technology and a corresponding increase of 3.7 per cent in the numbers securing a grade of C or higher.

Uptake in higher-level engineering rose 5.6 per cent, biology 4.7 per cent, chemistry 4.2 per cent and design and communications graphics 2.3 per cent, with a marginal increase in grades across all subjects with the exception of biology where there was a noticeable jump of 4.9 per cent in the proportion getting C or better.

The rise in the proportion of students taking higher-level physics and applied maths was greater still (at 6.7 per cent and 10 per cent respectively) but the percentage getting a C or higher was down (by 3.2 per cent and 2.2 per cent respectively).

Tony Donohoe, head of education policy at employers' group Ibec, noted that the interest in maths and science has translated into increased demand for third-level science and technology courses.

“However, there is no room for complacency. Over 40 per cent of respondents to a recent employer survey anticipate a shortage of skills in the next five years in engineering, ICT, specific quantitative skills and languages.”

Leaving aside national trends, Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan has extended her congratulations to all of the class of 2015, as have teacher unions, school management bodies and the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

Its president Betty McLaughlin stressed that, regardless of results, there were opportunities to “charter an educational pathway forward that will be both rewarding and fulfilling”, either through further or higher education.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column