Math Exams in Britain Have Become Too Easy 20 January 2009

Math Exams in Britain Have Become Too Easy

This conclusion comes from a report, titled "The Value of Mathematics," prepared by Reform, a London-based think tank. It was published in June 2008.

Report authors John Marks of the University of Buckingham and Laura Kounine and Elizabeth Truss of Reform document how the so-called O-level and GCSE mathematics examinations have changed over time in style, content, difficulty, and grading.

"The evolution of the mathematics curriculum from a rigorous, focused discipline to a broader and shallower subject can be demonstrated by analysing exam papers since 1951," the authors state.

The report describes three phases in the decline:

from 1951 to 1970, the exam questions were a rigorous test of thought and initiative in algebra, arithmetic, and geometry. Students had to think for themselves;

from 1980 to 1990, despite the content of the curriculum being identical to previous years, a simplifying trend was already evident;

from 1990 to the present, questions became significantly shorter and simpler. Pass marks were lowered throughout the latter period.

"Relevance has replaced rigour in the belief that this would make mathematics more accessible," the authors contend. "At the same time high stakes assessment has reduced what should be a coherent discipline to 'pick 'n mix,' with pupils being trained to answer specific shallow questions on a range of topics where marks can be most easily harvested."

One consequence, they say, is that graduates are ill-prepared for the modern workplace, putting the British "maths economy" in danger of atrophying as fewer students study mathematics and attainment falls.

"In today's Britain it is acceptable to say that you can't do mathematics, whereas people would be ashamed to admit they couldn't read," Truss told the BBC News. "We need a cultural revolution to transform maths from geek to chic."

Government officials, however, insist that standards are carefully monitored by an independent watchdog to make sure they remain world-class and are an appropriate preparation for study or work.

And here's what a leading journalist said about the report and its conclusions in The Guardian:

Championing the report in these pages on Tuesday, the Oxford maths professor, Marcus du Sautoy, claimed that examiners were now too frantic to make maths seem relevant to young people's working lives. The subject had been "emasculated by a move away from rigour and logic" in pursuit of the fool's gold of "relevance".

This had "ended up just making it boring". I studied advanced maths to 16. I loved wandering in its virtual world of trigonometry and logarithms, primes and surds. I breakfasted on quadratic equations, lunched on differential calculus and strolled, arm in arm, with Ronald Searle's square on the hypotenuse.

It was a waste of time. I dedicated my next two years to Latin and Greek, which proved to be more useful (just). Most teenagers clearly feel the same. They must grapple with difficult techniques and concepts which hardly any of them will ever use, assuming they can understand or remember them.

In the age of computers, maths beyond simple and applied arithmetic is needed only by specialists. Ramming it down pupils' throats in case they may one day need it is like making us all know how to recalibrate a carburettor on the offchance that we might become racing drivers. Maths is a "skill to a purpose", and we would should ponder the purpose before overselling the skill.