The State of Declining Mathematics Enrolments

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.

17 Replies to “The State of Declining Mathematics Enrolments”

  1. People will see what they want to see, and AMSI is no exception. Everyone has their pet agenda to push and will twist the evidence to support it. A special case of confirmation bias.

    The fact that Queensland enrolments almost halved in 2020 is damning beyond words. One can only wonder what advice students were given. It shows just how much of a game subject selection has become. Choices – often stupid choices – are made to try and maximise an ATAR. Students trying to ‘play it safe’. And Universities are enablers of this. University entry requirements will always be a huge factor in subject selection.

    The rot starts in the lower year levels and works its way up to Yr11 and Yr12.

    It’s interesting that NSW enrolments were stable for both. The state that offers more challenging mathematics subjects and sets exams that focus on mathematics rather than bogus pseudo-real life contexts (like stunt cars with an infinite initial acceleration). But I don’t see too many ‘experts’ noting this. I guess it doesn’t fit their agendas.

    As for AMSI … AMSI has had many chances to influence the trend. Wasted chances, the latest one allowing itself to be stooged by ACARA – by the time it back-flipped the damage was done.

    The decline has been inexorable over the last few decades, and yet the same expert idiots that allowed this get to keep calling the shots.

    1. Thanks, John. The Queensland 2019-2020 thing is complicated. Obviously one way or another things there are pretty screwy, but I wouldn’t be concluding too much without a careful look. Except, that the “plummet” is QLD and not national.

  2. Nice post.

    In NSW it is often repeated to students that maximising your ATAR is achieved by doing the highest level of math that you can. This is true enough.

    If scaling of marks, or this repeated message, changes then probably enrolments in NSW would decline as well.

    Anyway, the conversation should be focused on Queensland. What a disaster.

  3. When were CAS calculators first used in Qld exams?

    I don’t actually know, so I’m not suggesting a correlation, but…

    1. RF, I think the main point is that before 2020 QLD didn’t have exams, at least for a long time. But, a couple things are unclear:

      a) How weak was QLD maths before the exams?

      Of course now it’s just stupid, but stupid like most of the country. But note the 37% doing B/Methods in 2019. That’s pretty high.

      b) How well or poorly were the exams implemented.

      I haven’t looked, but I have a sense that QCAA screwed up.

      1. I wonder how many Qld teachers have enjoyed the lack of accountability that no external exam offers. Getting away with teaching as much or as little as they choose. Now suddenly there’s accountability and probably desperate attempts to teach stuff they never previously bothered with.

        I’m guessing that many teachers were forced to suddenly teach way outside of their comfort zone and made a total mess of it. The word would spread pretty quick to avoid those subjects.

        Exams, syllabus etc. are here:

          1. I’m simply providing a counter-point to “I have sense that QCAA screwed up”. I have a sense that you might be right (if QCAA is like VCAA then I’m certain you’re right), but I also have a sense that teachers have screwed up too.

            I’ve seen what can happen in VCE Units 1/2 – the required syllabus versus what actually gets taught. (And then it’s the poor sap in Units 3/4 that has to teach stuff that should have been taught in Units 1/2 but wasn’t). When there’s no accountability it becomes the Wild West in terms of what gets taught and how well it’s taught. Qld Yr 12 has been the Wild West for many years – you’ll never be wrong betting on human nature …

            1. There must have been some external monitoring, just as Victorian SACs are externally monitored. Of course SACs are awful and are monitored by little Hitlers, and quite possibly the QLD assessment was screwed in similar, or different, ways. But I have absolutely no idea.


                Looks good on paper, like many things do …. (But I can see a few ways of gaming the system that would keep everybody happy and enrolments high).

                Clearly the introduction of external assessment was the cause, the question is why was it the cause. I don’t suppose we’ll ever officially know. It’ll be interesting to see whether, over the next few years, enrolments rise, stay roughly the same or continue to fall (albeit not as catastrophically).

        1. I don’t know if this would be a big factor, if present at all. I’d say that it isn’t uncommon that extension 2 subjects are taught very poorly. This is primarily due to the difficulty in teaching it if out of field, and the lack of in-field teachers in many schools across NSW.

          However enrolments are pretty good. I think this can teach us something about what really influences enrolments.

          Instead of looking at how teachers changed their teaching to conform to the change in QLD, I’d look at how messaging to students changed as a result of the external exam. Were students told by their school to choose non-math subjects because they believe that will lead to a higher raw mark, and with uncertainty around scaling, a higher chance of final score? Were schools in QLD saying this because of league tables that they believe will come into existence using the results from these new exams?

          I’m guilty as well of talking about things I don’t know anything about, just like John. So grain of salt territory for sure. But this is my best guess at what actually affected enrolments. Not teaching methods or students talking to other students, or parents talking to students, or anything like that — instead, I believe the culprit to be the schools, giving different advice to students on what to enrol into.

          1. Glen, I agree with you that this might have been a factor. I know it’s speculation, but I believe it’s informed speculation – we all know there are schools in Victoria that do this, can it be so different in other states, particularly with such a major change to the assessment system …? (I think not).

  4. If Victoria is “the education state,” then why is NSW Maths good? Besides Maths, do you think there is any subject where Vic education is better than NSW?

    1. I don’t know any details of any other subject, but there is a Kool Aid aspect to all of Victorian education. I find it difficult to imagine there is a subject in which Vic would be better than NSW.

    2. The previous car number plate logo was the safety message “Stay Alert, Stay Alive”. It was scrapped by Dan Andrews in favour of “The Education State” after the Labor Party was elected in 2014. Apparently the number plate change was part of Labor’s goal to make Victoria’s education system the best in the country:
      “Under Labor, education will be more than just a word – it will be a rock solid foundation for our economic future.” (Dan Andrews – 2014).

      So, Victoria is “The Education State” because Labor’s education policy was to change the number plate logo to “The Education State”.

      In the past 25 years Victorian car number plates have also described the state as “The Place To Be”, “On The Move” and “The Garden State”.

        1. Victoria hasn’t been the education state since the VCAB was replaced by the VBOS, then BOS and then VCAA. And certainly not since the VCE replaced the HSC. Trying to spin it otherwise using a car number plate logo doesn’t make it so. Car number plate logos being used to deliver a – totally false – political message is nothing short of pathetic. I wonder if it constitutes false and misleading advertising? I plan to ask the ACCC.

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