Raising maths and science standards

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Peter Cheney assesses Ireland’s latest OECD rankings and how improvements can be achieved.

One in seven Irish students fail to gain basic skills in maths and science, according to a new OECD report. However, the Project Maths initiative appears to be improving standards and helping to turn around Ireland’s performance.

The Universal Basic Skills report, published in May, stated that 15 per cent of Irish students (aged 15) had not attained the most basic skills level in maths and science. In addition, Ireland was ranked 15th out of 76 countries. The findings were based on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, which covered 65 countries, and separate test results for a further 11 countries.

League tables often attract criticism as rankings fall or rise depending on small variations. The highest scores, as expected, came from East Asia’s intensive education systems with Singapore in first place. Finland (6th) and Estonia (7th) were the best performing European countries. It’s notable that Ireland was ahead of two larger economies: the UK (20th) and France (23rd).

The OECD estimates that if all Irish students were to gain basic skills, GDP would increase by a further $216 billion (€192 billion) over the course of their lifetimes and be 8 per cent higher in 2095 than would otherwise be the case.

Irish PISA scores for maths and science decreased in the 2000s but subsequently increased from 487.1 to 501.5 between 2009 and 2012, partly due to the Project Maths initiative.

Project Maths started in 24 schools in 2009 and was extended to all schools two years later. The full programme is expected to be in place across the State later this year. An initial review by Drumcondra Education Centre, published last November, suggests that it increased PISA scores by 10 points in participating schools in 2012. This outcome is based on all other variables, including socio-economic status, gender and students’ attitudes towards maths, being controlled.

Particularly significant improvements were achieved in interpreting maths among male students and understanding space and shape among female students. The review acknowledged that Project Maths placed extra demands on students and teachers, especially among female students. It was, though, too early to say whether this was explained by the transition itself (and the accompanying increased scrutiny) or difficulties in teaching, learning and assessment.

Students need to have good literacy levels in order to fully benefit from Project Maths. Questions are based on real world situations which are described in detail and this “could act as a barrier to understanding rather than a facilitator”. The review team suggests that teachers should also use abstract mathematical terms, involve students in group work, and encourage them to explain their reasoning.

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