Two-thirds of NSW students grouped out of STEM degrees

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Students in Year 9 are being funnelled into mathematics pathways that limit their opportunities for STEM degrees and careers, according to a new paper published by University of Newcastle researchers.

Felicia Jaremus headshot
Felicia Jaremus

The NSW Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10) Mathematics Syllabus is organised into three pathways or streams. Only students in the highest stream are taught the assumed knowledge required to do Mathematics Advanced or Mathematics Extension in Years 11 and 12.

Lead researcher, Felicia Jaremus from the University’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre said their research showed streaming often starts as early as Year 7, so that by Year 9 more than two-thirds of students are on a pathway to Mathematics Standard, at best, in the HSC.

“This creates a glass ceiling for kids who might want to pursue careers or tertiary education in mathematics or engineering but don’t understand the ramifications of being in a mid or lower maths class at 13 years of age,” said Mrs Jaremus who is about to submit her PhD by publication.

In the paper, titled Grouped out of STEM degrees: the overlooked mathematics ‘glass ceiling’ in NSW secondary schools’, Mrs Jaremus and her colleagues drew on interviews with 85 students and 22 mathematics teachers from 11 NSW government high schools; a sub-sample of interviews from the Aspirations Longitudinal Study (2012-2018), which involved more than 10,000 students in Years 3-12 and almost 1,500 teachers.

The researchers also reported on international studies that found ability grouping was highly inequitable. While Australian studies have often focused only on the benefits of grouping for students with perceived ‘higher ability’, international research has found that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately allocated to lower mathematics groups.

“Our findings raise serious equity concerns, particularly with a greater push for universities to re-introduce high-level maths prerequisites. Currently, many students are not learning the assumed knowledge for Mathematics Advanced and are, therefore, not really being given a choice to participate in Mathematics Advanced when they reach Year 11.” Mrs Jaremus said.

“High level maths in NSW is designed for students who have the right foundations. They pull further ahead based on what is perceived to be ability but is in fact also a grouping system that supports them. The opposite is true for many disadvantaged students, who miss out on some of the fundamentals and end up pushed further behind by those same grouping designs.

“Alarmingly, most of the Year 9 and 10 students we interviewed for this study who were not in the high-ability group were unaware of the opportunity-based consequences of their mathematics stream. They rarely even knew they were learning different material than others in their year group.

“The assumed knowledge required for Advanced Maths should be open for all students to learn in Stage 5. This could be achieved by providing additional support to teachers and students in both primary and secondary schools.

“There’s also room for improvement in the ways students catch up on missed mathematics in alternative pathways into university to increase diversity in STEM degrees” said Mrs Jaremus.

Director of the Teachers and Teaching Research Centre, Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, said this early entrenchment of achievement levels is a major equity concern.

“There is a well-established link between mathematics achievement and student advantage This means that ‘high-status’ degrees like engineering are largely closed-off to our most disadvantaged students,” Professor Gore said.

“We might have one of the best education systems in the world, but while the divide remains between advantaged and disadvantaged students, and ability-grouping continues to be entrenched, we have a lot of work to do.

“Equity in education should be a top priority for our policy writers, and not just paid lip-service. With the latest government plans to boost student numbers in STEM degrees, we must ensure more students can access these opportunities.”

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