This post, as indicated by the title, is ostensibly about the State of declining enrolments in mathematics subjects. That State, as we shall see, turns out to be Queensland. But, first things first.
Last week, AMSI released its annual Mathematics Participation Report Card, complete with a media release and a media notice of an Australian story on the report (Murdoch, paywalled). Begun in 2008, AMSI’s report has become a tradition of sorts, kind of an Australian Groundhog Day. Each year, mathematicians poke out their heads, look at the darker maths ed skies, mutter “Bugger this, it’s worse”, and go back inside. This year is no different. Except, it turns out to be different.
AMSI’s latest report, with data up to 2020, gives the number and percentage of completing Year 12 students who took a mathematics subject. The subjects, which of course vary from state to state, are classified as either elementary or intermediate or higher. Victoria’s Methods and Specialist subjects, for example, are respectively classified as intermediate and higher. (Stop laughing.) The classification is necessarily a little uneven, primarily because NSW and International Baccalaureate mathematics subjects don’t suck, but you get the idea.
For 2020, AMSI’s report indicates that 9.2% of Year 12 students completed a higher mathematics subject, and 26.8% completed either intermediate or higher (or both). Continuing decades of decline, the percentages are down from 2019, when the corresponding percentages were 10.1% and 30.6%. The steep decline in these percentages is what has led to AMSI pushing the panic button, noting the “crisis” that “students shun mathematics”, so that participation “takes a dive” and has “plummeted” to “an all time low”, and that “It is The End of the Mathematics World as We Know It”. OK, we made up the last one, but the others are direct AMSI quotes.
So what went wrong, and how do we right it? There’s been no shortage of Very Wise Commentators providing answers. Of course, AMSI understood that they shouldn’t conjecture on the causes, since their report was simply recording the data and trends. Except, they couldn’t help themselves. In their media release, AMSI indicated they knew exactly how to fix things:
AMSI is calling for immediate action in the classroom to be made, with measures to address the long-standing issue of out-of-field teaching a non-negotiable.
Um, no. If the issue of unqualified teachers is “long-standing” then, whatever its intrinsic importance, this unelaborated issue cannot explain the decades of decline in participation, let alone the “plummet” in 2020. But of course given any hint of an opportunity AMSI will worry AMSI’s out-of-field bone, and they will get as many others as possible to worry along.
The Australian‘s Natasha Bita, who pretty clearly had been given the scoop on AMSI’s report, had two articles, both prominently featuring AMSI’s line, and The Australian had a separate editorial singing the same song (Murdoch, paywalled). The report in The Educator Magazine was heavily weighted with AMSI’s media release. Adam Spencer on 3AW and Allan “Why Maths Must Change” Dougan on the ABC News Channel were right in tune with AMSI, with their unquestioning interviewers nodding along.
There were, of course, other diagnoses and other remedies. Mark Latham on Sky News blamed it, predictably, on “the woke agenda”; the interviewer Peta Credlin was happy to ignore the basic implausibility and complete lack of evidence, and to nod along idiotically. Meanwhile on ABC News Radio, education professor Jane Hunter was keen to blame it on maths not being mandatory in later years, and on the teaching being “dry” and “textbook-based”, and that the solution is to “integrate maths teaching with other subject areas”; the interviewer Thomas Oriti was happy to ignore the basic implausibility and complete lack of evidence, and to nod along idiotically. Pushing a similar real-world theme were Allan WMMC Dougan and, demonstrating record-breaking chutzpah, Chief Engineer Jane McMaster (Murdoch, paywalled). Pushing a completely other world was “mathematician and software expert”, James Curran, who argued that students weren’t learning enough about online gaming and sports (Murdoch, paywalled).
This is nuts. All of it. One would think in a discussion about mathematics education that the Very Wise Commentators would be able to distinguish between position and velocity and acceleration. But no. That appears to be too much to ask.
The various ills and cures suggested above may, or may not, help explain the low level of mathematics participation and/or to raise that level. None of it, however, has been properly employed to explain the decades of decline in participation. And, none of the nonsense above could even conceivably explain the “plummet” of 2020. And, evidently, no one cares.
So, what is the explanation for the decades of decline? And, why the “plummet” in 2020? The latter is the real question, since the “plummet” is the new information, the reason that everyone has their knickers in a knot. The decline is almost certainly complicated, a combination of numerous awfulnesses; our own guess is that the Very Wise Commentators above are talking utter nonsense, but we won’t debate the point here. The explanation for the “plummet”, however, is obvious, and was there all along, and we told you at the very beginning:
The fact that Queensland provided the simple explanation was included, but not emphasised, in Natasha Bita’s original article. Bita begins her article with the national decline from 2019 to 2020, equivalent to the percentages from AMSI’s report that we gave above, and it is only at the end of her article that Bita considers the decline in individual states. She indicates that Victoria experienced a small but notable decline in higher students and with intermediate numbers stable, and that New South Wales enrolments were stable for both. (Bita appears to get the NSW percentages wrong, but our quick view of the data (and thanks, Glen) indicates her conclusion is correct.) So, pretty much nothing, and certainly nothing new to warrant knicker-knotting.
And Queensland? There’s your dive off the cliff. Bita indicates that from 2019 to 2020 the higher/specialist participation in Queensland fell from 10% to 5.9%, and the intermediate/methods participation fell from 37% to 19%. Bita also indicates the underlying cause of Queensland’s dive. In 2019, Queensland announced there would be a change from their school-based assessment system, with external exams counting for 50% of students’ grades in 2020. Why exactly this led to Queensland’s plummet is contentious, and is being debated in hushed and angry tones. But Queensland is unarguably the location of the plummet, and the introduction of external exams was unarguably fundamental to the plummet.
Notably, none of this is in AMSI’s report, although it is hinted at. AMSI’s report contains no state-by-state analysis, seemingly because at least one overly precious State authority would not permit their data to be so used. But AMSI does point the finger at an unnamed State:
The location of the decline can be traced back to one state, which changed its examination system in 2020, and where Year 12 maths enrolments collapsed.
There you have it. And only there. In their report’s Key Findings, AMSI could have noted Queensland, or at least “one state”, and they chose not to. In their media release, AMSI could have noted Queensland, or at least “one state”, and they chose not to.
Everyone else could have thought for more than a second and/or or asked the obvious questions and/or emphasised the key truths. But no. Everyone, including and in particular AMSI, preferred manipulable hysteria to calm explanation.