Monday, September 27, 2010

Outstanding Issues for the Bonus Points Scheme, and the Points System More Generally

"The manner in which students are admitted for third level education and in particular the points system have become matters of increasing public controversy in recent years." This sentence could have been written in recent months; it was in fact written in the late 1970's, and read before the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland on the 24th May 1979. It is an excerpt from "The Leaving Certificate and First Year University Performance" by M.A. Moran and M.J. Crowley (Department of Statistics, University College Cork).

A couple of weeks ago, I outlined all the information that I was able to find on the introduction of bonus points for maths at UCD. Since then, I have developed some thoughts on outstanding issues for the bonus points scheme, and the Irish points system (for college entry) more generally. While the bonus points scheme is somewhat separate to the overall points system, and potential changes to the points system have been discussed before on this blog, the two areas of discussion make for natural bed-fellows. It would also be a shame to lose sight of what is happening in the wider points-system, given the attention currently being given to the topic of bonus points.

In relation to the issue of bonus points, I think that the debate would benefit from more focus on the following:

(i) The overall Project Maths initiative
(ii) The potential introduction of two maths examinations; one testing basic mathematical competency (at the end of Fifth Year), which if passed would secure a pass overall and entry to third level, and another to test advanced mathematics ability
(iii) The availability of higher level maths in schools throughout the country
(iv) The claim that half of second-level maths teachers do not have maths as a major subject in their degree
(v) Whether the bonus points would be awarded only to those who are going on to take a third-level course that requires maths
(vi) Whether there should be bonus points for science subjects in the Leaving Cert.
(vii) Whether maths should be compulsory for CAO points purposes

More broadly in relation to the overall points system, I have the following comments. I know that the points system, despite its flaws, is agreed by many to be the fairest and most transparent way that college places have been allocated to date in Ireland. Thinking about what can actually be changed, my suggestion is that we need more continuous assessment (CA). However, here's the twist --- this CA should be marked anonymously, just as the exams are. This would serve to take away the pressure of the "Big Day", and the CA could even be designed to encourage critical thinking, while at the same time being a fair and transparent assessment method. As things stand, I think that too much importance is given to one exam on one day for each subject.

Finally, I also think that having four (instead of three) compulsory choices might be fairer, in that it would be viewed as a more level playing-field. Looking at Leaving Cert. subject choice between 1997 and 2005 (based on analysis that I conducted before), we know that most students choose Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology for their optional subjects. The following are the most popular subjects, in order. (I should point out that after Accounting, the numbers taking any subject are quite low):

1. Geography
2. Business Studies
3. French
4. Biology
5. Home Econ.
6. History
7. Art
8. Construction
9. Physics
10. Chemistry
11. German
12. Accounting

I should also point out that there is a sizeable fall of about 50% in the numbers taking any subject after Home Economics. We can see that the top four (Geography, Business Studies, French and Biology) include one of Hist/Geog, one "Business" subject, one language and one science subject.


Kevin Denny said...

One outstanding issue is that raised by Kathleen Lynch in the Irish Times recently. Her basic point is that giving bonus points for Higher Maths is inequitable since not everyone has the opportunity to do Higher Maths.
I think there is merit in the argument.
The problem is that if its unfair to award more points for Maths, whats special about equal points? Should we award less points for maths on equity grounds? And indeed whats special about maths since in general opportunities to get points are very inequitable.
This is not to engage in reduction in absurdam but to highlight the second-best nature of the problem. We want to encourage people to do maths (say) and we have a policy that might help but it makes some other margin worse. Should we not do it then?
Well the first-best is to address both issues. Indeed I would argue then addressing the "other margin",improving equity of access to good maths education, is more important. UCD's statement was quite clear on this, basically saying thats the governments job.
Part of the problem is that different agents, the government and the universities, decide on these two issues with no guarantee of co-ordination.
So what to do? I am not sure. But I am very doubtful if the problem of unequal opportunities to do well in Leaving Certificate maths will be significantly improved soon.

Martin Ryan said...

The availability of higher level maths in schools throughout the country is definitely an issue. And of course, there is the more fundamental issue that eligibility to enrol in higher level maths can be affected by factors which are set in motion many years earlier.

On top of this, there is also a suggestion that half of second-level maths teachers do not have maths as a major subject in their degree. I wonder in which schools these teachers are based?

Kevin Denny said...

Lynch's article cites some work she did with others a few years back looking at these sorts of issues. I don't remember the details.