Leaving Us Confused

Histogram of sepal widths for Iris versicolor ...
This distribution of people who nod as if they know what graphs like this actually mean

Today is the day that bad decisions are made.

For it is the day that the results of the School Leaving Certificate Examination (the “Leaving”) come out. Today the students make bad decisions by getting drunk while still mostly underage. And politicians, by making promises.

Ten percent of students failed maths at ordinary level. In a knowledge-based economy that is simply not good enough, etc. Something must be done. Teachers must be fired, students must be fired, schools should be closed, opened or set fire to. Lessons must be made harder, exams easier, students must work more and take more time to rest. Draw your own headless chickens.

But… Isn’t the whole point of exams that some people fail them?

I don’t really think that ninety percent is so terrible a pass rate for an exam that, you know, is actually testing something. And not merely basic numeracy; the Leaving Cert ordinary-level paper is essentially a qualification to enter university, as almost all courses require it. So are we really in trouble if only ninety per cent of the population qualify for third level education? Less than sixty percent actually avail of it.

Could it be that the reason the public panic over standards in mathematics is that they don’t understand some basic mathematics? Because if they don’t… Wait.


2 thoughts on “Leaving Us Confused

  1. I think it’s been a general trend in several countries to focus more and more on the test scores. They are one of the few tangibles of a good education, in contrast to the far bigger amount of untangibles (like the quality of learning to be able to sit through a mind-numbing boring hour of something you don’t understand or care about and not disrupt the proceeding).

    In line with “business-like” thinking, school managements have been told that they will be held accountable for test results. Rankings of schools will be printed (with no consideration to geography and background of students), etc. etc.

    And then comes the amusing part. People are then shocked (shocked!) that educators start “teaching for the test”. Or, a little loophole in the Netherlands: poor performing kids are not given the test, at all.

    The “tangible results” go up and up. Quality of education goes down and down.

    Oh well, the students still learn how to sit through a mind-numbing boring hour of something they don’t understand or care about and not to disrupt the proceeding.


  2. When I supervised a maintenance crew I wrote an exam for evaluating potential new recruits. I pre-tested the exam on some of my existing technicians. I already knew which ones were good techies and which ones weren’t, so I figured this reverse test could glean some of that info and therefore be used for future employees. I was testing the test, so to speak, using the existing crew as the metric.

    They were all good employees, dedicated, varying degrees of cleverness and creativity, etc. Some were recent graduates from the local Polytechnic, others had been out of school for a while. Anticipating this, some questions favoured recent graduates while other questions favoured veterans; it was difficult to know both sides of the exam. I was happy with the results. They spread over a curve which sort of mirrored their job performance. I figured the test was helpful after all.

    Then half of the department turned into my office asking me what I was up to and complaining that nobody could ace that test. There was this strong perception that a test should be something you could study for and get 100%. I asked them what good would it do to me if I had one vacancy and five candidates scored 100%. Eventually they got around to it, specially when I noted similar questions were already asked during interviews. I was simply quantifying them.


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