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Maths but not as we know it!

The State Examinations Commission and the Education Minister have faced a lot of criticism and questions in the last few days in relation to the fairness of this year’s Leaving Certificate higher level maths exam after paper two was labelled as ‘unfair’ and even as a ‘disgrace’ by both teachers and students alike.

Sinn Féin’s spokesperson for education Seán Crowe in his protests has called for an enquiry – which is little consolation for those students who worked tirelessly and often to the detriment of their other subjects to complete a higher level maths course in time to sit the exam. They say hard work pays off; some honours maths students wouldn’t agree especially when they feel unfairly assessed and some would even say that they weren’t assessed according to the course they studied.

This article was published in June 2012

If the majority of teachers and students who both claim the paper was unfairly complex with questions badly phrased, are right in their accusations; The State Examinations Commission might have to address the injustice in the marking process and subsequently in the Leaving Certificate Maths Paper 2013. Afterall, it is unfortunate to know your syllabus but to be thrown by cryptic questions.

It is well researched and documented; how the tiniest issues can trigger a mental block in a student. A mental block is a block to information processing; moving on to the next question doesn’t always clear the blockage. If Teachers came out and criticised the language used in paper 2; we can only imagine how it felt to be a student facing that paper with a ticking clock in the background. One Mathematical text book author stated that even he couldn’t answer one of the questions asked.

The Department on the instruction of various economic advisory bodies (whose job it is to predict jobs and skills shortages) were given the task to encourage and entice more students to undertake honours maths. The number of students this year to sit higher maths jumped by 20% because of the recent introduction of bonus CAO points for the level. Many students and interested parties would be confused by the rewarding of bonus points to attract students to higher maths for the very maths paper they are enticed to sit is laden with vocabulary obstacles and cryptic maths.

Teachers hoped and probably expected an easier opener to help settle students’ nerves about this new-style paper. Speaking to Maths teachers, who have had to undergo extensive training to cope with Project Maths; they found elements of the paper ‘difficult to comprehend’ and ‘answer’ themselves. The same teachers questioned parts of questions that are not even on the syllabus. An exam is to assess the learning of students sitting the exam. Teachers are questioning how their students can demonstrate what they have learnt – if they are not asked in the first place.

Not all students panicked when they were hit by unfamiliar language or unfamiliar questions. This demonstrates the necessity to provide students with key skills to overcome panic or questions that are not ‘doable’ for them. It was the students who didn’t panic and stayed calm that left the exam hall happier and more optimistic.

Some would say it is unfair to judge the value of the new Project Maths syllabus until students have completed the five-year cycle. However, it is acknowledged that it was hard for this year’s Leaving Certificate students to make the transition to the new Project Maths syllabus. These students learnt Maths in the traditional way and it was these students that had to cope with the changeover to a new way of learning and dealing with Maths.

The State Examinations Commission and Education Minister Ruairí Quinn will more than likely assess the criticism levelled at the exam and take steps to improve its content and fairness.

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