Students studying advanced maths getting lower ATAR marks is simply scandalous

keep-calm-and-love-maths-18So the latest news says that students doing advanced maths are getting lower university entrance scores than those doing general maths. Really?

How can we as a country even begin to hold our head up and have a serious conversation about STEM engagement when we not only allow students to complete high school without studying maths at all, but then mark down the ones that take on the hard end of maths? The simple answer is that we can’t, and that’s scandalous.

Maths participation is declining generally. And without maths the successful participation in science and engineering subjects also slides downwards. Equally frightening is that, as this rather excellent paper from last year points out: ” In particular, the declining participation rates among prospective teachers are deeply concerning, with the potential to create a vicious cycle of declining engagement with maths in New South Wales schools.” I would argue that the evidence is that we’re already locked in that cycle.

Another frightening element of this is that the decline in maths and science participation is worse for girls: “Gender disparity has increased, with less female students undertaking maths/science combinations in their HSC now than in the 1980s.”

On top of all this, the latest research shows that students are choosing to do subjects at a level below their capability just to achieve a higher mark. So even the students who are doing maths are choosing general maths even though they are capable of much more. While that’s a broadly rational decision in a microcosm, as a society it reflects a horrifying rush for the lowest  common denominator.

At one level what we’re seeing with maths is s symptom of a wider problem: NSW families have become obsessed with the HSC mark to the exclusion of actually getting an education or really considering what will come next. The HSC is important and it’s always been a high-stress, high-stakes exam. But with the advent of mass tutoring, constant comparative testing, and an increasing focus on marks beyond education, it’s no surprise that people will game the system the achieve the highest mark and deal with the consequences, if they understand them, later.

It’s no surprise, but it is something we as a society ought to be addressing. Continual international tests, like PISA, have our educational outcomes declining while countries like Taiwan and Korea do better and better. Now I’ve always consoled myself when looking at these tests that I don’t really want to live in a society where kids are doing ten hours of tutoring on top of their eight hours of formal schooling just to come out with high marks and an enduring distaste for learning. The idea that Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the World but hardly anyone reads for fun, is not a road I’m at all keen to go down. Personally, I’d be happy to see our position in the PISA tests hover at the bottom of the top quartile if that reflected us pushing out engaged learners who can think on their feet. But encouraging students to game the system for marks by doing easier subjects is indicative of the worst of both worlds – we’re disengaging our students while also not educating them.

I wonder what it will take to change this, because, short of a lot of hand-wringing, I don’t see any signs of action. Changing some of this will take long-term and concerted action by schools, teachers, universities and families. It will take a change in the way we view maths and science that is going to be hard to engineer. But there’s clearly one thing that could be done quickly and simply – stop disadvantaging those who choose to take on the tougher subjects.  Make their marks reflect the difficulty of what they are doing and its importance to our society. And do it now.

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