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Math failings

Monday, August 20 2012

DESPITE attending classes everyday for the past five years, most pupils failed a recent math exam for school-leavers.

We should all be greatly concerned about the revelations in a report in Newsday (August 11) entitled, “Decline in Maths – a cause for deep concern”, which reported the Caribbean Examinations Council’s (CXC’s) concern over the poor performance of Caribbean pupils (including Trinidad and Tobago) in last May/June’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) Exam, for fifth-form pupils.

The Council revealed that two-thirds of pupils failed the CSEC Math Exam last May/June. Their statement said the proportion of pupils passing the exam by earning a grade I to grade III fell from 41 percent in 2010, to 35 percent last year to just 33 percent this year. So 67 out of every 100 pupils failed, this year!

We’d like to sound an alarm on this math crisis in a society where math and English passes are a basic requirement for many jobs such as nursing and policing. In fact, figures posted on the CXC website suggest that the 2012 general proficiency math results are the worst ever in the past nine years! This June’s 33 percent pass-rate sharply contrasts with the 47 percent pass-rate seen in the May/June 2008 Exam, and moreso the 57 percent pass rate scored in the January 2008 exam (although 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2011 also saw dismal results).

Questions must be asked as to why pupils scored so badly in the 2012 exam, which is part of a steady decline in results over the past five years. Are our pupils simply becoming less capable, (say due to too many other distractions in their lives)? Are teachers failing? Would some pupils be better advised to write the easier “Basic Proficiency” math exam? These questions must now be placed foremost in the minds of the nation’s teachers, pupils, parents, administrators and employers.

The CXC website itself acknowledged the math crisis in a statement, “Call for Action to Address Performance in Mathematics” where the CXC’s Subject Awards Committee (SAC) said it was “deeply concerned about the quality of work produced by candidates at this level.”

The report noted, “Topics such as the range, perimeter, and profit and loss that should be covered at the lower secondary level were not fully understood”.

The statement said, “The SAC has called on the region to address the issue of teaching and performance in Mathematics by re-organising its Mathematics programme, supporting teacher training and facilitating access to instructional resources”. CXC Registrar, Dr Didacus Jules, listed steps the CXC is taking to remedy the situation, including the establishment of an expert working group to recommend “comprehensive changes in the teaching, learning and assessment of Mathematics”.

Dr Jules also urged more teacher training, plus more math content on the CXC interactive online portal, among other initiatives.

However, most remediation measures, in our view, will have to be initiated locally. We’d like to hear the suggestions of Minister of Education, Dr Tim Gopeesingh; the TT Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA); and teacher training institutions such as supplied by TT’s three local universities. Math is not some exotic, optional subject but is a core prerequisite to even the humblest of professions. At the micro-level, a good starting point for individual teachers, if they have not already done so, would be to familiarise themselves with the reports on candidates’ performances that are listed for the past nine years on the CXC website. The reports list pupils general misconceptions about specific mathematical ideas, and suggest remedies.

At a macro-level, it may well be time for a national debate on the ongoing decline in mathematical ability. Do pupils need a reversion to old, traditional ways of learning? Alternatively, would pupils benefit from more use of electronic technology such as internet-linked smartphones for learning mathematical concepts? One way or the other, can teachers find new ways to practically illustrate certain mathemetical concepts that pupils might otherwse have problems mentally visualising?

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