State examinations under-reward numeracy. This is unfair and penalises boys disproportionately.

In my previous blog posts analysing Leaving Certificate results, a clear picture of gender and performance emerged. As with almost every widely-available subject, boys trail girls badly in both Irish and English. However, they do slightly better or about the same as girls in Maths (it depends on how you measure performance).

However, it is also clear that Maths is marked far more harshly than other subjects. As a result, being good at Maths gets you far fewer points than being similarly good in, say, Irish. In “points” terms, Maths is undervalued and boys suffer from this disproportionately.

Consider also, the number of opportunities the Leaving Certificate offers to people who can absorb a large number of facts, understand how these facts relate to each other and to the question asked and then craft a coherent, written answer. The skill-set I describe here should not be dismissed as mere “rote learning”. On the contrary, this skill-set is the basis of expertise – be that medical expertise, legal expertise or any of the other areas in which we rely on people to know what they are talking about.

However, it is also the case that this skill-set can be deployed very profitably when sitting papers for English, History, Geography and Politics to name just a few. In contrast, Maths is also the only Leaving Certificate subject that rewards strong numeracy (Applied Maths is not available to the vast majority and fewer than 1,900 out of approximately 55,000 students sat the exam in 2017).

Why, for example, do statistics and probability theory not merit their own exam subject when it is no exaggeration to say that they are the only tools we have for determining what is true and what isn’t across a huge range of topics? English, History, and all the others subjects are important but none of them come close to the power and applicability of mathematics as a tool for building or understanding the world we live in.

Finance, manufacturing, engineering, and all branches of science rely heavily on mathematics.  Indeed, the new and increasingly dominant industries of the internet are essentially a series of mathematical algorithms with some design wrapped around them. The reality that mathematics is an increasingly vital skill across a vast range of human endeavour simply isn’t reflected in the balance of Leaving Certificate subjects.

Boys’ relative strength in maths is being corralled into a single exam subject which then receives penal marking. I do not suggest that there has been a conscious effort to bias the Leaving Certificate against boys but, deliberate or not, the effect is the same – the Leaving Certificate has been gerrymandered against boys.

One thought on “Gerrymandering the Leaving Cert

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