AMSI’s Undisciplined Message on Enrolments

AMSI put out a media release yesterday, announcing their Groundhog Day Participation Report Card on school mathematics enrolments. It’s probably no spoiler to give the spoiler: enrolments suck. Which brings to mind a Two Ronnies joke, revamped for this occasion:

“What time does the Specialist Mathematics class start?”

“What time can you get here?”

The Australian‘s Natasha Bita was handed AMSI’s “scoop“, just as she was in 2022. We skimmed AMSI’s media release and Bita’s compliant reporting, and decided to ignore it. Then a friend pointed out a minor aspect of AMSI’s media release, and here we are.

AMSI’s media release is titled,

Mathematics Enrolments Remain at All-Time Lows

Yes, and the dinosaurs are still dead. Neither makes for a compelling press release, and so AMSI juiced their message a bit. The Key Findings of the Report Card begins,

In 2020, the number of students studying calculus-based maths decreased significantly. Participation in higher mathematics [Specialist etc.] dropped below 10% for the first time, to 9.2%. Participation in intermediate mathematics [Methods etc.] nosedived to 17.6%, well below its former usual participation rate above 20%. Since then, the number of students studying calculus-based mathematics has failed to recover, with participation rates of 8.9% and 9.0%, for higher mathematics and 17.8% and 17.7% for intermediate mathematics, in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

So, in 2020 there was a nosedive in the more serious mathematics subjects, and, at least up to 2022, there has been no recovery. AMSI reported this 2020 nosedive in their 2022 Report Card, so in 2024 they’re simply milking the old bad news:

Both in the number of students as well as the proportion of the total student cohort, the participation in intermediate and higher mathematics subjects has plummeted to all-time lows in the last three years …

Given the plummet was in 2020, the “last three years” framing is neither accurate nor particularly honest. Moreover, readers with good memories will be aware that AMSI is being even less honest than not particularly honest. Why? Because the 2020 plummet that AMSI reported in 2022 was almost entirely the reaction to a one-off change in Queensland’s assessment of senior mathematics.

Not that things aren’t catastrophic, of course. It takes genuine talent to be Chicken Little while the sky is actually falling.

None of the above however, was what my friend had noticed. It wasn’t AMSI’s struggle with the truth that concerned him, but AMSI’s struggle with reality.

Why have mathematics enrolments steadily declined over the decades, and thus how might we address the decline? AMSI’s report cards don’t speculate on the reasons, although three obvious suspects come to mind. First, the poverty of the F-10 curriculum and F-10 teaching, which has steadily worsened, neither prepares students for solid senior mathematics nor inspires them to try it. Secondly, the senior mathematics subjects, with the exception of NSW, are just not that good and are getting worse. Thirdly, universities’ scumbag scheming to lower mathematics prerequisites ensures that many students will not think twice about skipping solid mathematics. (To give due credit, AMSI has paid good attention to the third suspect, if not the first two.)

One would think that’s enough but, as my friend noticed, AMSI had spotted a fourth suspect. Stuck in the middle of AMSI’s media release, we find a one-sentence paragraph:

The STEM industry depends on early adolescence appreciating the value of mathematics as a career and life aspiration.

Ignoring that it is difficult for “adolescence” to appreciate anything, being a period of time rather than a person, what the Hell is AMSI thinking? Do they really imagine that the failure to indoctrinate ten year olds on the wonderful benefits of the “STEM industry” is the missing ingredient, the magic formula for maths ed success?

AMSI’s participation report is part of a larger “Discipline Profile Report”, to be released later in the year. For which purpose it would be helpful if AMSI had the sense of what a discipline is, and what STEM isn’t. And this all brings to mind a short clip:

Yes, I am a little shit, and no, no one cares about maths.


38 Replies to “AMSI’s Undisciplined Message on Enrolments”

  1. “Secondly, the senior mathematics subjects, with the exception of NSW, are just not that good and are getting worse.”

    Examples? Quite a blanket statement with no evidence.

        1. OK, to be clear, this is largely off the point of the post, which is that AMSI games their media releases, and is generally incompetent. But we’ll begin.

          Do you concede Victoria?

  2. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics.

    I regard medicine, dentistry, nursing, physiotherapy, veterinary science, optometry as branches of science. There is no shortage of people – particularly women – trying to get into these courses.

    1. Are you suggesting that the quality of students studying the algebra/calculus Mathematics subjects has increased? The data does not seem to support this.

        1. If the average quality of students in these subjects was increasing I would accept that argument.

          I do not believe that the data supports this conclusion.

          1. If you check Grade Distribution for Spesh (or Methods for that matter), what % of the students get exam scores under 20%?
            What are they doing in Spesh???
            The number needs slimming, hence.
            If vcaa oays more, say up to 60 for top scorers, the number of students taking Spesh will go up. And they would be decently academic students.
            N.B. Median score “competition” for schools should be based on scaled scores.

  3. In reflecting on the graph above, one should keep in mind that there have been some major changes in VCE over the last few years. A new mathematics subject has been introduced (Foundation Mathematics); VCAL has been replaced by VCE Vocational Major (which includes two compulsory mathematics subjects). These are just two examples of changes that may have an effect on the trend depicted in the graph at least from a Victorian perspective. It’s complicated.

    1. VCAL, VM, Foundation… they may explain the change in enrolments overall, but surely we are talking about a different sample entirely to the Methods/Specialist subject pool…?

      It may still be “complicated”, but I’m not sure it is for the reasons or in the way you describe.

      1. Maybe the existence of Foundation maths at units 3&4 as shifted the “Overton window” for students. It used to be that Methods was the middle of three, now it is above the average difficulty. This is doubly so as so many (Victorian) universities now allow “Any unit 3&4 mathematics” for entry into STEM subjects.
        See the 2025 and 2026 VTAC prerequisites…

  4. My school discouraged people (except the high-achievers) from doing specialist maths because of its difficulty and because no university course actually requires it. A lot of those people ended up doing engineering, and had to take Calc 1 and then higher math subjects.

    1. Some background needed.
      Is it to keep av study score high (for school stats/ rank)?
      How often av spesh study score is above whoke school av? Well nedian should be mentioned.
      Is it to push high achievers even higher?

      1. I don’t know the school’s reasoning for it. It might have been to increase the school’s stats. I suspect that there’s just this general attitude which no one has bothered to challenge that spesh is this really hard subject meant only for math geniuses.

        How would it “push high achievers even higher” to reduce the amount of people taking spesh? My school had a small amount of people doing spesh but still enough to run classes, but I’ve heard of spesh classes being cancelled at other schools and people not being able to do spesh/being forced to go to VSV.

        1. Two of my Methods students take Specialist through VSV. Three of them, Physics.
          And there’s only just enough to run the Methods class.
          It’s both a crying shame and perfectly understandable.

      2. Av (or median) spesh score above the school av (or median) would practically never happen. If schools are pulling kids out of harder subjects for the sake of their median scores, then that’s ridiculous, but fairly predictable given the incentives.

        I don’t really know why they report raw scores at all. Why not just apply the scaling prior to reporting and then you can make fair comparisons?

        1. Indeed. Using the raw scores for subjects is misleading. I suspect the school ‘rankings’ would look very different if scaled scores were used. Some might even start discouraging strong students from doing Maths Methods + General Maths (*) and start encouraging them to do Maths Methods + Specialist Maths … Perhaps this could be an instant fix for declining numbers …

          * General Maths scales DOWN by a few points, Specialist Maths scales up by about 12. All those low 40’s in General disappear from the public rankings and all the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Specialist scores above 30 suddenly appear ….

        2. Well, at 1.38 pm independetly, i mentioned the same obvious idea. So there are at least two of us.
          Want schools comparing scores, make ud medians(or means)

  5. Changes to the Mathematics Study Design (such as the removal of Mechanics in Specialist Maths, addition of pseudocode etc.) were ostensibly made to address declining numbers in Specialist Maths (in particular, female numbers) and Mathematical Methods. It will be interesting to see the numbers for 2023 (the graded assessment report is not yet available) and whether these changes look to have arrested the decline. I have been and remain skeptical.

    For 2023: ?
    For 2022: 3,798.
    For 2021: 3,990.

    1. History is filled with ideas that people thought were great at the time.

      Any change that starts at the top is assumed to be good change. The reality is a different story. I’m not sure those at the top care to hear it though.

      How pseudocode was meant to fix anything beggars belief. Statistics? Maybe a nice idea, if enough people knew enough about it to write decent exam questions/textbooks. Get rid of mechanics? Sure, they’ve basically taken all the Mathematics out of physics, so why not take all the physics out of Mathematics…?

      1. Thanks, G. Can you provide a link? I can’t find it.

        If that’s the case, then it’s still dropping.

  6. Regarding Red Five’s comment about Statistics. Please check out the Advanced Placement (AP) Statistics program.

  7. The movement at my school is completely in opposite direction. 3 years ago, we has 3 students taking Spec via VSV and barely enough for 1 Methods class. Since the day we successfully fought the establishment and had year 10 streamed, the number of students taking Spec and Methods gradually recovered. Last year in my 1/2 we had 10 and only 5 went up to 3/4. This year we had 15 and I expect at least 12 will continue. (for the context, we are a below average state school). And the feedback from my students is Spec 1/2 is so much fun (and hard) compared to MM 1/2, which is I agree on. The only issue is we still didn’t manage to get more female students as they still think it is too hard. I had to personally seek out potential students at year 10 to convince them to do Spec.

    1. I have noticed that enrolments drop in the transition from from SM (1/2) to SM (3/4).

      BTW, is the creation of the VCE (Baccalaureate) an attempt to modify the trend suggested by the graph?

      1. It is no surprise that enrolments may drop in the transition from X (1/2) to X(3/4). I should have said that, in the case of SM, the drop is substantial.

  8. How can many do Spesh when they don’t have times tables and mental arithmetic and dividing by a fraction is Year 7!

    Learning algebra without this automaticity is much much harder!

    The STEM industry ACTUALLY depends a lot on migration from countries where this stuff is part of the primary curriculum!

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