News archive 2009
No improvement in maths since 70s08 Sep 2009, PR 182/09
Rising scores in secondary maths examinations grades in England over the past 30 years do not appear to stem from real increases in mathematical understanding, a major new research study from King’s and the University of Durham has found.
‘Secondary students’ understanding of mathematics 30 years on’, by Dr Jeremy Hodgen, Dr Dietmar Küchemann, Professor Margaret Brown, from the Department of Education & Professional Studies, King's College London, and Dr Robert Coe from the University of Durham, was presented at the BERA conference on the 5 September.
The analysis of 3,000 secondary pupils' performance in algebra, ratio and decimals tests conducted last year suggests that there has been little overall change in maths attainment since 1976.
Exam pass rates, by contrast, have risen dramatically during that period. In the early 1980s, only 22 per cent of pupils obtained a GCE O-level grade C or above in maths. Last year over 55 per cent gained a GCSE grade C or above in the subject.
The researchers at King's and the University of Durham tested the youngest three year groups in 11 secondary schools last summer as part of a project designed to discover how more pupils can be encouraged to study science, technology, engineering and maths. They gave them a set of tests that were sat 32 years ago by 11 to 14-year-olds who took part in the influential Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science study.
This comparative exercise also revealed that secondary pupils are much more familiar with decimals than they were 30 years ago. ‘This follows cultural changes resulting from metrication and increased prevalence of calculators and computers,’ says Professor Margaret Brown. ‘These changes were increasingly reflected in the national curriculum in its many versions since 1988.’
Fractions, on the other hand, are now harder for 11 to 14-year-olds, it seems. Thirty years ago pupils would sometimes convert decimals into fractions to solve a problem. Those taking the 2008 tests tended to do the opposite. ‘This is perhaps unsurprising as addition and subtraction of fractions are now even more rarely met in everyday life than in the 1970s,’ the researchers comment.
It also appears that there were higher proportions of very low performances in all three topics and all year groups in 2008 than there had been in 1976. The researchers have yet to investigate the reasons for this finding but offer five possible causes:
• a greater proportion of pupils with learning difficulties who in the 1970s might have been in special schools
• more language problems as schools now cater for more pupils with English as an Additional Language
• less willingness to take the tests
• less incentive for schools to develop very low-attaining pupils as they do not affect their position in performance tables, and
• the greater prevalence in 2008 of whole-class teaching of/to a centrally-directed, age-specific curriculum. As this is aimed at the middle of the attainment range, the needs of children with the lowest -- and highest -- achievement levels can be ignored.
The researchers told the British Educational Research Association conference in Manchester that they already have some evidence to support the last of these theories.
They emphasise that their findings must be classed as "interim" as they have still to analyse the performance of pupils from a further nine schools. ‘Our 2008 sample is not fully representative as it is slightly skewed towards higher-attaining pupils. Nevertheless, the overwhelming conclusion is that there are far fewer changes in mathematical attainment over a 32-year period than might be expected, or which have been claimed,’ Dr Jeremy Hodgen, Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education, adds.
‘There are greater proportions of pupils with very low attainment in 2008, and either similar or slightly better performance at the higher end. There is no evidence for significant improvement, or significant deterioration, of standards between 1976/7 and 2008.
‘Although performance in some areas has improved it looks as if, when all the results are analysed, there will be little evidence for the sort of step-change in mathematical attainment which might be suggested by the claimed improvements in examination results.’
Increasing Student Competence and Confidence in Algebra and Multiplicative Structures is a four-year research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of a wider initiative aimed at identifying ways to increase participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines.
Notes to editors
Department of Education & Professional Studies
King's College London first entered the field of education in 1890 and was one of the earliest institutions to do so among British universities. The department is among the country's three highest-rated departments for the proportion of 3* and 4* rated outputs in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). Projects are funded by major agencies such as the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Research conducted in the department informs all our taught programmes and has contributed to improving teaching and professional practice, debates on public policy and addresses the concerns of professional communities. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/education/
The Economic and Social Research Council
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's leading agency for research funding and training in economic and social sciences. http://www.esrcsocietytoday.ac.uk
Secondary students’ understanding of mathematics 30 years on
1. Phase 1 of the project consists of a large-scale survey of 11-14 years olds’ understandings of algebra and multiplicative reasoning, including a comparison of children’s current attainment with that of 30 years ago. Phase 2 is a collaborative research study with teacher-researchers who are using the results of Phase 1 on their own classes. The aim is to examine how formative assessment can be used to improve attainment and attitudes, and finally how the work can be disseminated on a larger scale. The first year of the survey and the exploratory year of the collaborative study have been completed.
2. The survey consists of three of the tests devised for the Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science (CSMS) study -- in algebra, ratio and decimals -- and an attitudes questionnaire. Each pupil involved in the 2008/9 assessment took two of the three tests so as to provide comparative information between tests but not to overload pupils.
3. The sample of 20 schools involved in the survey across 2008 and 2009 is a stratified random sample drawn from the Middle Years Information System (MidYIS). MidYIS is a value added reporting system provided by Durham University, which is widely used across England. Some schools were not able to complete the testing in 2008 but the cross-sectional survey is now complete. The combined sample will be representative of schools and pupils in England.
4. As with the original CSMS tests, the representativeness of the 2008/9 assessments will be checked using student scores on a test of cognitive ability, and if necessary the sample will be adjusted. The CSMS tests were checked against the current version of the national curriculum and appeared to form just as appropriate assessments as they had done in the 1970s. Piloting indicated that only minor updating of language or context for a very small number of items was required which would be unlikely to affect their difficulty significantly. The great majority of the items in the decimals and algebra tests were, in any case, mainly expressed in mathematical symbols.
King's College London
King's College London is one of the top 25 universities in the world (Times Higher Education 2008) and the fourth oldest in England. A research-led university based in the heart of London, King's has more than 21,000 students from nearly 140 countries, and more than 5,700 employees. King's is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.
King's has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £450 million.
King's has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar. It is the largest centre for the education of healthcare professionals in Europe; no university has more Medical Research Council Centres.
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Alex Bevis, Public Relations Officer
Public Relations Department, King’s College London
Tel: 020 7848 3202 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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