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Little change in maths skill in 30 years

Posted on 24/09/2012

Pupils’ maths performance similar to 1970s despite sharp rise in examination grades

Rising scores in secondary maths examinations in England over the past 30 years do not appear to stem from real increases in mathematical understanding, according to a major research study from King’s College London, published today.
Despite a dramatic rise in exam pass rates, an analysis of secondary pupils' performance in algebra, number and ratio tests conducted last year suggests that there has been little overall change in maths attainment since the 1970s.
The study finds that:

  • Attainment in algebra and ratio has not improved over the past 30 years
  • Attainment in number has risen slightly for average attaining students. This rise is relatively small and is not reflected for the lowest and highest attaining students
  • In algebra, number and ratio, the proportion of students at the lowest level of attainment has increased significantly, whilst the proportion of the highest level has decreased substantially
  • Current students’ understanding in algebra, ratio and fractions is relatively weak
  • Current students perform better on more routine rather than more non-routine problems
  • The proportion of students intending to study mathematics post-16 declines across Key Stage 3 for all students, but the proportion is lower for girls

In the early 1980s only 22 per cent of pupils obtained a GCE O-level grade C or above in maths. This year over 58 per cent gained a GCSE grade C or above in the subject.
During the summers of 2008 and 2009, researchers from the Department of Education and Professional Studies at King's, in collaboration with Durham University, tested a nationally representative sample of more than 7000 students, aged 11 to 14, from 19 randomly selected secondary schools. Researchers gave students a set of tests that were sat 1976 and 1977 by 11 to 14-year-olds who took part in the influential Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science study.
The research study has also demonstrated that attainment can be dramatically improved through professional development and guidance on using assessment to improve students’ learning: an intervention designed by researchers and a group of teachers doubled the rate of learning over an academic year. The intervention is designed to enable teachers to use formative assessment in mathematics classrooms by evaluating what students already know or do not know about a topic, then using this to adapt their teaching to students’ learning needs.
Professor Jeremy Hodgen, who led the research team, said: ‘Our results highlight a serious problem in maths education. There are far fewer changes in mathematical attainment over the past 30 years than might be expected, or which have been claimed. There are greater proportions of pupils with very low attainment and smaller proportions of students with very high attainment, in 2008 and 2009. There is no evidence for significant improvement, or significant deterioration, of standards between 1976/7 and 2008. There is little evidence for the sort of step-change in mathematical attainment which might be suggested by the substantial improvements in examination results.’

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and is part of the Targeted Initiative on Science and Mathematics Education (TISME), a programme designed to discover how more pupils can be encouraged to study science, technology, engineering and maths. The results will be presented to an invited audience of policy-makers, influential teachers and academics at a seminar organised by the project today, Monday 24th September.
Notes to editors

For further media information please contact Anna Mitchell, PR Manager (Arts and Sciences) on 0207 848 3092 or

For further project information, please contact Jeremy Hodgen.

For more information on King's visit our 'King's in Brief' page.

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