Making the grade, but our sums still don’t add up

YESTERDAY’S publication of the latest report from the OECD on the performance of 15-year-old students in reading, maths, and science has some very welcome news for Ireland.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2012 shows that our 15-year-olds have made dramatic improvements in science and are now ranked ninth out of 34 OECD countries. This is up five places since the last PISA results were published three years ago.

In reading literacy, Ireland is at the top of the leaderboard in Europe, with a similar score to the Finns and fourth overall among OECD countries.

In maths, we have improved on the 2009 figures, but we need to continue to learn lessons about the teaching and learning of mathematics in Ireland.

As Minister of State with responsibility for Research and Innovation, I am particularly pleased to see how our 15-year-olds have improved in science. But maths remains a concern. We can, and we need to, do better.

Last month I launched the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Education Review Group which is chaired by Prof Brian McCraith, president of Dublin City University. The PISA results are timely and will inform the work of Prof McCraith’s group as it seeks ways to enhance education at both primary and second level.

In science, Irish students performed above the OECD average, and were 15th out of the overall 65 participating countries. It is particularly heartening to see Irish girls and boys doing equally well on the science test. Irish teachers and their students deserve great credit for these improved results.

PISA also gives a strong signal to industry and foreign investors that Irish students are benefiting from a high-quality science curriculum at primary and post-primary levels. Indeed, one of the lessons for us from PISA is that the long-term investments we made in curriculum change and teacher training in science at primary level in 1999 and at junior cycle in 2003 are now having a significant positive effect on students’ learning.

It is heartening, too, to note that Ireland has lower proportions of poorly performing students in reading, mathematics, and science than in other countries. However, it is worrying that we have relatively low proportions of high-performing students, especially in mathematics and science. So, while it is really pleasing to see our interventions helping the less able students, we have more to do to stretch the potential of our best students.

While our students and teachers deserve praise for our performance in science, we cannot say the same for maths, yet.

Ireland’s ranking on the print-based PISA mathematics test is 13th out of 34 OECD countries and 20th out of 65 participating countries. The good news is that for the first time, Irish students in 2012 score among the “above average” performing OECD countries on the print mathematics test. But we are still not among the top performing countries. And there are some caveats.

Our performance in mathematics is the same as it was in 2003 when maths was last the major focus of the PISA tests. In 2012, Irish students are included with the “above average” performers. But this is because the average score across the OECD has fallen, rather than because there have been improvements in maths standards in our schools.

The findings highlight the poor performance of our maths students in aspects such as shape and space. The findings also note a high level of anxiety about mathematics among girls in Ireland compared to boys, and that boys outperform girls in the maths tests.

This is of serious concern to me and is why we have to continue to prioritise quality teaching and learning in mathematics. The ongoing implementation of Project Maths both at junior cycle and senior cycle should help to address some of the key shortcomings highlighted by PISA. We also have to look at the teaching of maths at primary level and the quality of mathematics within teacher education. These will be priorities for the STEM Education Review Group to consider.

The review group will analyse carefully the findings of PISA and other evidence about teaching and learning in the areas of science, mathematics, and technology, and they will provide me with advice for consideration by the department.

Clearly, there is a lot of good teaching and learning going on in the STEM curricula in our schools and the PISA results in science are highlighting the positive effects of reform.

We need to build on this good work and continue to reform the way teaching and learning happens in schools. We need to inspire a love and not a fear of mathematics in our students, particularly the girls. We need to have high expectations for all our students and stretch the capacity of our high achievers.

I want to ensure that the Irish education system can measure up to international best practice and even challenge international leaders. I and my colleagues in Government are committed to achieving this goal and I look forward to working with teachers, schools, parents, business, and industry to this end.

* Sean Sherlock is Minister for Research and Innovation.

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