The first examination of a revised junior cycle maths curriculum, being taught to incoming first-year students from this autumn, will take place in June 2021.
As has already happened with English, two maths papers will be replaced with a single two-hour paper under junior cycle reforms.
Brendan O’Sullivan said algebra is the key first step in many other areas of the subject but he fears it might not get enough attention without a focus on it in exams.
Two years ago, the State Examination Commission (SEC) chief examiner in Junior Certificate maths warned of problems for students at Leaving Certificate if declining basic algebra standards were not rectified.
Most higher-level maths students in the 2015 Junior Certificate had struggled to complete multi-step procedures accurately.
Mr O’Sullivan said concerns have already been raised about what has happened in English, with no drama question in the first revised Junior Certificate exam last year and no studied poetry or film studies questions for higher- level students last week, and the same might happen with maths.
It is inevitable that there will be large sections of the course that will not be examined. We have seen it already with the English paper this week, with the omission of poetry,” he said.
“Invariably this will lead to disappointment but, more worryingly, there will be those that will gamble and it doesn’t take an expert in probability to know that this will result in big losers.”
He said the SEC has an opportunity to address a critical area of difficulty faced by students, as identified in the chief examiner’s report.
“I would call on the SEC to put a section in the two-hour paper where students are guaranteed to encounter algebra,” said Mr O’Sullivan, who teaches at Davis College in Mallow, Co Cork.
“There should never be a situation where it is omitted and it would offer peace of mind to students to know that they will encounter this material.”
Mr O’Sullivan said the common criticism of teachers ‘teaching to the exam’ would actually prove beneficial as there would be a better chance of reversing the decline in skills.
If algebra skills are poor, that will affect you going into different mathematical topics, you need those skills for solving problems,” he said.
“In areas like trigonometry or co-ordinate geometery, they are the first steps.”
Mr O’Sullivan said predictability need not be a problem if an algebra question was guaranteed, as the SEC has skillfully shown through the years that material can be examined in several ways.