Saturday 25 January 2020

Students chasing honours maths bonus risk being out of their depth

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Students who take higher-level maths in a bid to get bonus points for college are at risk of being out of their depth, a major new report warns.

Some students who made the jump to 'honours' maths in the Leaving Certificate took the wrong decision, according to the State Examinations Commission (SEC).

A number of concerns are raised in the first detailed reports of student performance in State exams, since the introduction of both the 25 CAO bonus points and the new Project Maths syllabus.

The reports - one for the Leaving Cert and one for the Junior Cert - are based on an analysis of answers in last year's exams, as well as the trends in students' grades since the two initiatives were rolled out. Both reports, which are published by the SEC today, differ somewhat in detail but many of the messages are broadly similar.

There has been a surge in uptake in the higher level papers in both the Leaving and Junior Certs. This is attributed mainly to the introduction of bonus points in 2012 for achieving a minimum 40pc (D3) in the honours Leaving Cert exam.

At Leaving Cert, 27pc of candidates took higher level maths last year, up from 16pc in 2011. This almost doubled the number from 8,237 to 14,691.

While at Junior Cert, the proportion swelled from 46pc to 55pc in the same period.

But a rise in the Leaving Cert higher level 'fail' rate from 3pc to 5pc between 2011 and 2015 suggests some students are pushing themselves too far.

Students who put in the effort at higher level and do not achieve a minimum D suffer a double blow - not only do they miss the 25-point bonus, but any grade below a D gets no CAO points at all.

According to the chief examiner, the shift of many of the more able Leaving Cert candidates from ordinary to higher level in the Leaving Cert has had consequences.

"Ordinary level students who made the shift and achieved a C or D might be seen to have made a good choice, as they have benefited from being exposed to level of mathematical reasoning and problem-solving that will stand to them in the future," it states.

But it cautions: "Such benefit is less clear in the case of a candidate achieving an E grade or below, and an E/F/NG rate of about 5pc does not indicate that all of those who opt for the higher level are necessarily making the optimum choice."

Meanwhile, at ordinary level, the proportion of candidates achieving a grade B or better has declined significantly, as a result of stronger students moving up to higher level.

Project Maths has changed the syllabus with a focus on problem-solving, although many in the maths community claim it represents a "dumbing down".

The reports note positive developments in candidate performance, but also raise issues about standard of answering in some areas, and among some students.

However, the chief examiner stresses Project Maths is ambitious and needs time to embed itself. The report strikes a note of optimism and says stabilisation in 2015 might indicate the "bedding in" has started.

Irish Independent

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