The Leaving Cert's new numbers game
Higher level maths should be inescapable for any student looking for a career in science
Blogs | 20 Aug 2012 :
The release of the first round of CAO offers shed more light on the aspirations of school-leavers and where they think the best job opportunities lie. Last week's good news about the improved standard of maths results - thanks in part to the Project Maths initiative - will have been tempered by news of increased points in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. Government will see this as a victory for the Smart Economy but some educators have argued the reintroduction of bonus points for higher level maths has had an inflationary effect on the points race, with little chance of positive knock-on effects at third and graduate levels.
To set the scene, take the following examples from the first round of offers this year versus last: Science in UCD and Trinity were 455 and 475 in 2011; this year they were 500 and 510 respectively. Outside the capital, food sciences in UCC rose from 365 to 405 points; biomedical science at CIT/UCC was up 30 points from 395 to 525. At University of Limerick Maths and Physics jumped from 390 to 535 points; and Computer Aided Engineering and Design went from 410 to 495. As any of the supplements in the broadsheets will attest to, science is up, arts are slightly down and everything else is holding firm. Expect this to be the new norm.
This new points landscape will put pressure on future classes of Leaving Cert candidates who will be looking for ways to play to their strengths in choosing their senior cycle courses. The jump in demand for STEM courses will leave candidates with no option than to take on higher level maths, with its carrot of a 25-point bonus for a D3 or better at higher level. Getting more students to sit higher maths is a perennial problem, but is forcing a pragmatic choice an example of getting a right answer for a wrong reason? Yes, but this has always been so, along with guessing which areas of study to focus on and choosing what level to sit a paper at. Students have always embraced an element of risk and played to their strengths in order to achieve the results they need. Those talented in Maths could choose Physics and Applied Maths to complement their skills; and students sitting exams as Gaeilge could receive up to a maximum 10 additional points. You might not be able to game the system, but you can make subject choice work for you. As it was, higher maths was time consuming, hard and of little use in applying for third level courses, only the talented or stubborn would keep it on.
I'm not arguing for easier courses, that school should be fun instead of informative, or that anything requiring undue effort on the part of the student should be discounted at exam level. Higher level maths is time-consuming, challenging and rewarding. An appreciation of the logic of problem-solving should be a cornerstone of any career in the sciences and maths provides a fine 'laboratory' for this skill, yet many science courses don't require higher level maths for admission.
As a counterpoint, the TUI has cautioned against the return of bonus points. Secretary general John MacGabhann argued that rewarding students for sitting a subject of no material relevance to their CAO choice, arguing that such subject choice would "unfairly penalise" students interested in and more likely to pursue a career in, say, French or English. It's a populist argument but fails to carry weight. To follow its logic, entry to courses at third level should only be defined by a sample of courses directly related to it - putting a disproportionate amount of work on students looking to do Arts, less for general specialised courses like Computer Science or Game Development and very little for professional courses like Radiography, Physiotherapy and Dentistry. Reductio ad absurdum? Hardly.
The Leaving Cert is an education, not an entrance exam. Students need to arrive pre-loaded with analytical skills that will help them thrive at third level instead of having just enough education to perform when they arrive. In the sciences that means higher level maths must be a prerequisite with bonus points as an appropriate reward for effort, if not accuracy.
As competition for places increase, students will see maths reappraise higher level maths as a leg-up on the competition, not a glass ceiling; a preparation, not a punishment. Incentivising it makes sense. And that's coming from an Arts graduate that stuck with it.