Monday, May 11, 2009

Leaving Certificate

I attended a talk recently by David Lubinksi who has been working on major studies of gifted individuals. One point that is made in his work is that people who are gifted in spatial intuition and likely to be the inventors and designers of the future are missed in standard aptitude tests. His website is below so that you can read his papers first hand. It got me thinking very clearly again about the use of the Leaving Certificate as a screening mechanism for college. I have generally been in favour of not tinkering with this too much. I admit that part of this comes from my own experience of coming from a working class neighborhood and being (by cohort standards) academically bright. Well meaning interview boards would likely have rejected me faster than a straight academic dogfight such as the Leaving Certificate represents and, in general, Ireland seems to me too small a country to have a system where committees would have a bearing on who gets into publicly funded universities.


Website


However, over time I have become increasingly frustrated to think that some of the potentially most productive people in society are being held back because they cant summon up the motivation to conjugate Gaelic verbs or are puzzled as to why anyone should care about the rantings of old Irish poets or why Cathy is in love with Heathcliff. To follow Lubinski and people with this mindset, how many people with gifted spatial intuition and related abilities are we missing out each year due to this process? If the Government is serious about promoting STEM achievement, should we consider an alternative track for gifted students to signal their abilities other than a general exam process. For example, should Engineering, Mathematics and Science subjects also be allowed to allocate places based on something similar to scores on domain relevant aptitude tests? The precise nature of the tests needed is outside my expertise but assuming for a moment that one can measure these traits, would it then also be mad to suggest that the ones who are really in the top of the distribution would be identified earlier and given more support?

Related to this, I am working at present on a detailed memo to follow on the research internships memo that I posted last year. This memo examines the literature on support systems for very high ability undergraduate college students, including things like offering them mentorship, extra courses, scholarships abroad and so on. I will be posting on this over the next few months. We have had a lengthy and productive access debate in Ireland but far less debate on how to deal with exceptionally talented individuals. While some of the latter issue is also an access issue, there is a lot more to it and we should try to use this blog to tease out some of the issues. Comments welcome.

15 comments:

Michael Daly said...

The good spatial reasoners, or those more comfortable 'thinking in pictures' wouldn't be too maligned with the leaving cert. Assuming a degree of insight into their own skills, if the school they attend gave them the option, they could feasibly pack their final years with applied maths, engineering, technology, construction, design and so on. There's also the vocational and applied options that focus more heavily in this area to prevent people falling through the cracks. More room for specialisation may be one option (e.g. easing off on the Irish verbs). However, from my own experience, doing solely 4 science subjects, a bit of history or dare I say it economics wouldn't have gone astray!

Liam Delaney said...

I know the the vocational stuff - I am talking about rare-ability people who may not be identified in school. Actually, I should have included the Junior Cert. Somebody who is in the very far right hand tail of traits associated with invention will not be identified through our school test process - given about 10 per cent of students get A's in any given subject, this is just a mathematical inevitability. So, someone who is literally a genius in a given domain may end up with 400 points and a place on a general arts or sciences course. Would it not make more sense to have a way of identifying the ones in the far tails of a particular subject, particularly STEM subjects.

Michael Daly said...

How to frame advice is another issue when trying to steer young people into the best suited tracks. It's easy to move students from something they hate (too often Irish) to another option, whether they have an aptitude for it or not. Moving students from a subject that is usually thought of as fairly easy (e.g. home economics) to something more difficult, like applied maths because it is the better option in the long run is more difficult. The typical response in this case is likely to be 'i won't regret this choice', 'if I do, I can always learn about it later'.

Aptitude tests could play the function of guiding students in their subject choice and many schools even private agencies currently do this. I recall doing an aptitude mid-way through secondary schooling and the general consensus being that people didn't have faith in the results and saw no purpose in doing it.

A standardised national aptitude system with longitudinal tracking within the education system, will be more informative than individual school based initiatives that don't reflect national averages and are dependent on the interpretation of career guidance teachers. It will show students what aptitudes fit with what subjects, and even college courses, using real results from recent cohorts. Whilst there are many issues here an aptitude based guide like this is certainly something that students will weight in their course choice decisions.

Liam Delaney said...

I did an aptitude test at one stage also but it was the type of one that tries to figure out whether you would better being a secretary or an electrician. Is there any mechanism for systematically identifying really high-end domain specific talent?

Michael Daly said...

See the point:

"Calculations from normal curve theory reveal that, by selecting on the basis of scores of 500 on either the SAT-M or SAT-V before age 13, for example, talent searches miss more than half of the top 1% in spatial ability (Lohman & Korb, 2006; Shea et al., 2001)."

It would be worth doing these calculations for Ireland. It's hard to know if the broad Leaving Cert. would miss more students(because it's less a test of cognitive abillity than SAT's) or less (students can self-select into subjects that involve spatial reasoning).

Michael Daly said...

From what I've seen it's either preference tests like the vocational direction test
here or aptitude/cognitive ability test like this. Combining both will give you a better greater predictive power but I haven't seen anything that can pick out careers.

Scanning the research on spatial ability you have to wonder would people have got there anyways. Like when they followed people up over many years and found that the spatial test predicted success down the line. I guess it's a matter of estimating how many people really fall through the cracks and the incremental validity of adding a spatial test to the ones we already have.

In the US there was definite value-added, though it wasn't huge-"Phase 3 examined the value-added contribution of spatial ability relative to the SAT and two well-known preference
instruments independently. As hypothesized, spatial ability
exhibited incremental validity over both the SAT  RIASEC and
the SAT  SOV; the magnitude of this increment averaged 2.4%
over the 10 sets of analyses"

Kevin Denny said...

What did it advise Liam: secretary or electrician?

Kevin Denny said...

There is a program for helping gifted children in Ireland. I think its just for primary kids - I might be wrong on that. There is a summer school in DCU and activities during the year. A parent said to me once that the Department of Education has a list of types of special needs and gifted was not one of them.

See also http://www.iagc.ie/

Mark McG said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark McG said...

Irish always seems to be a target in these discussions, I think it is sometimes easy for economists in particular to focus on numerical and spatial ability as opposed to verbal reasoning.

The Leaving Cert isn’t designed with those in either tail of the ability distribution in mind, nor should it be in my opinion. Certainly the current Applied and Vocational programmes could be improved.

I’m also unsure about the extent to which different aptitudes are required to do well in different subjects, at least for the average student. Some of the signalling theories in game theory are a little depressing about the value of education; however students clearly don’t do the Leaving Cert simply because they are interested in their subjects. As Liam says, it ultimately comes down to motivation, but largely extrinsic as opposed to intrinsic. Anyone unsure about the importance of rote learning should consider the recent growth in grind schools.

I would be very interested to know the relative role of cognitive versus non-cognitive ability in determining Leaving Cert results. Also, motivation is still an issue with aptitude tests. One paper (previously mentioned by Martin) that discusses these points is “The Economics and Psychology of Personality Traits” by Borghans, Duckworth, Heckman and Bas ter Weel in the Journal of Human Resources (2008).

Liam Delaney said...

"The Leaving Cert isn’t designed with those in either tail of the ability distribution in mind, nor should it be in my opinion." - you could keep the Leaving Cert as is, but add another round of screening to identify very high end talent in STEM subjects. Art and Drama do have a different entry route, for example.

Liam Delaney said...

Kevin - i was only eight but they said that my failure to fully grasp the need for identification in structural models might hamper my bid to become an economist. I think they told me that accountancy and law would be a good route!

Kevin Denny said...

I had the same problem when I was 8, but by 9....

Karina said...

The Irish Centre for Talented Youths offers IQ tests to kids between 6-16 years but the tests are optional and I'm not sure that all schools give their students the opportunity to participate. The examinations are in the US SAT style and cover mathematical and verbal reasoning with students having to sit both (but not pass both) in order to qualify for scholarships for summer programmes/places on Saturday morning courses with other similarly gifted students. Maybe a test like this should be made compulsory at some stage between primary school and the junior cert?

Kevin Denny said...

karina
I think giving talented youth an opportunity to shine & to be identified is a great idea. I think being compulsory would be a bad idea 'though. Leaving aside practical difficulties about organizing & providing them (which would be substantial) it might stigmatize kids who do badly. I suspect teachers, who have a lot on their plate, would not be sympathetic. The challenge is to find a way for all students in our system, whether fast or slow learners for example, to find their niche & to get the appropriate education. Easier said than done alas.