Monday, October 11, 2010

Bonus points for maths: the new policy

It has just been reported that the Irish Universities Association have agreed a policy whereby students taking Higher Maths in the Leaving Certificate and getting at least a D will get an extra 25 points.
Aside from concerns about the possible effects on equality of access raised by Kathleen Lynch , I am curious about what incentives this new scheme provides. So the idea is to get more doing Higher Maths and presumably doing better all round. Often "non-linear pricing" generates perverse incentives.
So at the high end there is no additional incentive: an A is worth more than a B by the same amount. I would have thought there was an argument for increasing the bonus as one gets a higher grade. Say a student wants to get a certain amount of points from maths. In the past he could have got it from say a C-. Now a D will do (I'm not sure of the exact numbers). Might he be tempted to put in less effort, settle for a D instead, and re-allocate effort to other subjects? So one might predict a clumping of the distribution around D for this paper.
Take another student who is thinking of taking Higher Maths but is worried about failing. The relative penalty to failing has increased (the E-D gap in points) so a risk averse student might think "no thanks". There might be an argument for encouraging students to take the chance by giving some additional reward for getting an E (i.e. a smaller bonus).
Finally,lets say the policy is successful in attracting more students to doing higher Maths. Presumably these will be the people who are moderately good at maths. So on the lower paper we get fewer A's and B's and more D's on the higher paper. Why is this something to be so pleased about anyway?
When the distribution of grades is published next year, it will be a nice little project to compare before and after.


BrendanH said...

That seems a complete mess. UL's long running maths bonus runs from 5 points for a C3 to 40 for an A1. No step to drop off at the low end, and extra credit for doing well. A flat-rate 25 is only going to really matter to the mediocre.

But maybe that's the point -- get the "not great at maths but could hack a B3" crowd to switch?

Kevin Denny said...

Flat rate - if you get a D or higher! The UL scheme (as was) seems to make more sense to me but I would have started awarding below C3.
I am not as skeptical about the motives behind it. It looks like a compromise to me: they wanted to do something but were concerned about the nerdy maths types doing "too well" out of it. The consequences may be as you suggest.

BrendanH said...

. . . if you get a D or higher!

Are you suggesting bonus points for failing honours maths? :-)

Peter Carney said...

It seems like a sensible approach to me. More students will attempt to do higher level maths and will try harder to stay in higher-level -- that's the issue that needed to be resolved.

Schools are generally not required to encourage students to take higher papers, especially in maths. Now students will want to -- the demand-lead approach is a good one. Students will want to take it, and will not 'drop-down' to lower level as easily. They will demand more tuition from their teachers -- who might previously had incentives to reduce their class size.

I accept your point about a C-student settling for a D given the flat-rate instrument here but perhaps thats the smaller price to pay for the new policy.

I guess it remains to be seen how it will fair out.

Kevin Denny said...

Peter: that would be an empirical matter ;)

Kevin Denny said...

Brendan,yes. There is nothing magical about 40% (or whatever the cut-of for a D is) and getting an E on higher maths is probably a greater achievement than a D3 on a lower paper which currently gets you 5 points.
If an A,B,C,D on higher maths is worth more than an A,B,C,D on higher English, respectively, why should that not also be the case for an E?
So students who were tempted to take a chance on doing the higher paper might reckon that they will get at least something if it all goes pear-shaped.