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Have Mathematics Exams Become Easier?

timothy posted more than 6 years ago | from the not-to-me-they-haven't dept.

Education 853

Coryoth writes "The BBC is reporting on a recent study in the UK that found that the difficulty of high school level math exams has declined. The study looked at mathematics from 1951 through to the present and found that, after remaining roughly constant through the 1970s and 1980s, the difficulty of high school math exams dropped precipitously starting in the early 1990s. A comparison of exams is provided in the appendix of the study. Are other countries, such as the US, noticing a similar decline in mathematics standards?" Readers with kids in school right now may have the best perspective on changes in both teaching and testing methods -- what have you noticed?

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Pay teachers more (5, Insightful)

kramulous (977841) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659045)

Clearly this is happening ... in the western world anyway. It's the only way that schools can keep up with the shear numbers of parent classified geniuses.

We've noticed this 'dumbing down' (thanks Idiocracy) for a while now at Uni. The newer mathematics students enrolling in first year are lacking some of the basic skills. Example: a couple of years ago, trigonometric functions and identities were completely removed from the high school syllabus. It goes back all the way to year one at school.

I don't think teachers are being paid enough and they are certainly not valued enough by the community. Once upon a time, the best and brightest minds went into the teaching profession; it had respect and was highly valued. Now, it's whoever wants to become one, winner by default. The best and brightest need to be attracted back. Why would somebody who has the ability to earn more than four times the national average wage go into a job that earns less than the average wage?

Re:Pay teachers more (5, Funny)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659225)

Why would somebody who has the ability to earn more than four times the national average wage go into a job that earns less than the average wage?
Yep, that's damn sure one of the big reasons I'm not interested in being a teacher once I finish my graduate degree. If I wanted to deal with children telling me what to do and get paid peanuts for it I'd go back to software development. ;)

General request! (5, Insightful)

xaxa (988988) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659267)

Could everyone put their country in the comment, if applicable? It saves people arguing back-and-forth about the same point, when both are correct for their own country and experiences, but on opposite sides of the world ;-).

Re:Pay teachers more (5, Insightful)

shadowkiller137 (1169097) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659381)

instead of a dumbing down I would say that there is more of a split happening between the people in advanced courses and those in the lower level courses. those in the lower courses are not being taught as well and like you said basic concepts are being removed but those in the higher level courses I think are being taught more advanced concepts than previously at that level and age. The standardized tests however must be able to access the whole range of people taking the test so they must be made easier because if the people with the lower training in math got all 0's on the test it would not show at all what they learned, in their own basic way.

Re:Pay teachers more (4, Insightful)

sedmonds (94908) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659391)

I don't think teachers are being paid enough and they are certainly not valued enough by the community. Once upon a time, the best and brightest minds went into the teaching profession; it had respect and was highly valued. Now, it's whoever wants to become one, winner by default. The best and brightest need to be attracted back. Why would somebody who has the ability to earn more than four times the national average wage go into a job that earns less than the average wage?

Not only do teachers not get paid enough to attract and retain the good ones, but teachers unions and the fear of lawsuits make firing the awful ones nearly impossible.

Re:Pay teachers more (5, Informative)

Changa_MC (827317) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659493)

...teachers unions and the fear of lawsuits make firing the awful ones nearly impossible.
I call B.S. on that one. In my time teaching, I saw several bad teachers let go. Problem was, there wasn't anyone better to replace them.

Re:Pay teachers more (1)

heavilyarmedgorilla (758066) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659439)

Agreed entirely. There's a perception in the UK that teaching is far from a serious career, particularly in subjects such as maths and physical sciences where pay is extremely low relative to industry or finance. The phrase "Those that can, do. Those that can't, teach." seems to have become embedded in the national psyche. The UK is storing up serious problems for the future; devaluation of the teaching profession largely amounts to devaluation of the competitiveness of the next generation once they reach working age, and arguably of society itself, to some extent. Short-term political cost-cutting should have no place in education.

LOL Tony Rezko guilty!!! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659479)

President McCain - I like the sound of that...

Re:Pay teachers more (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659501)

Teachers aren't paid enough?

I live in Calgary and teachers here are well paid and we still see this problem. One of the biggest problems I see here is that we've created a system where you can not "Hold a student back" and thus students move to the next grade regardless of being prepared for it or not. Eventually these students get to highschool and can not pass the courses without a lot of help from teachers (yeah, as if that is going to happen) so they reduce the complexity of the courses in order to continue to pass these students.

Re:Pay teachers more (5, Insightful)

homer_s (799572) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659545)

...can keep up with the shear numbers of parent classified geniuses.

Clearly, your English teacher wasn't paid enough.

But other than that, the problem I see in this country is that the consumers of education have no choice. And like in any other monopoly, the provider gets away with poor quality.

Re:Pay teachers more (4, Informative)

Coryoth (254751) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659577)

I don't think teachers are being paid enough and they are certainly not valued enough by the community. Once upon a time, the best and brightest minds went into the teaching profession; it had respect and was highly valued. Now, it's whoever wants to become one, winner by default.
That seems to be true for mathematics tyeachers in the UK; conveniently the BBC is also covering the rather glaring fact that the majority of people teaching mathematics aren't experts [] . That is, the majority of people teaching mathematics have degrees (if any) in unrelated subjects. Mathematics isn't the only subject that has a shortage of people actually qualified to teach; most of the sciences do apparently. Mathematics is far and away the most glaring case however (only 47% of maths teachers had a relevant degree, compared to 85% for biology, 83% for chemistry, and 72% for physics). Throw in the fact that mathematics is one of those subjects where a student can be permanently set back by just one bad teacher and you have a decent part of the problem.

The needs are changing (1)

EmbeddedJanitor (597831) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659593)

In the old days, the bandwidth of mathematicians was limited by how fast they could do computations. Thus, if you worked in a field that required mathematics then you had to be able to crank your own math.

These days it is far easier to use computers etc as a multiplier; one mathematician can be used to do a lot more. For example, one mathematician can work as a consultant to an organisation that develops some stress analysis package/library etc and thousands of structural engineers can use that work without having to personally crank the math.

To know when to use which math tools does need some level of math skills, but far less than actually doing the stuff yourself.

we don't want to upset them (5, Insightful)

spir0 (319821) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659055)

we don't want to upset the poor children or make their lives too difficult. their parents might sue.

Re:we don't want to upset them (1)

glgraca (105308) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659429)

In my school (England in the 80s), we had different groups according to maths skills. I don't know if it still works this way, but I think this is the best way to go 'cause everyone gets the minimum and the best/motivated get what they want.

I don't think so (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659069)

The grade I received on my most recent calculus test says differently.

Re:I don't think so (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659477)

That was from your dentist and it wasn't a test, it was a cleaning. You need to floss more.

First post! (4, Funny)

Harmonious Botch (921977) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659075)

They had to lower the standards because the kids today can't handle simple math.

Re:First post! (5, Funny)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659107)

They had to lower the standards because the kids today can't handle simple math.
Does that include concepts like, "what 'first' means?"

Re:First post! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659205)

They had to lower the standards because the kids today can't handle simple math.
Does that include concepts like, "what 'first' means?"
That was the point of GP's post, deliberately posted later. Whoosh...

Re:First post! (2, Funny)

NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659305)

Oops, posting 1 minute after the actual first post is waaay too subtle for me. Sorry for being an idiot.

Re:First post! (1)

Harmonious Botch (921977) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659465)

You're not an idiot. Over twenty minutes passed before it caught a 'funny' mod. I WAS way too subtle.

Re:First post! (1)

AioKits (1235070) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659295)

Does that include concepts like, "what 'first' means?"
Yeah, it would have been totally embarrassing if he had come in second like that guy at the top of the postings...*cough*

Re:First post! (5, Funny)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659395)

Don't bruise his self esteem you brute.
Here on /. in the 21st century, every post is first post.

# FUDging all the rage nowadays (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659095)

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Finally (5, Insightful)

Zelos (1050172) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659109)

I'm glad somebody finally pointed this out in black and white. I remember lining up A-level (UK age 18 exams) maths papers from the 80s and 90s, you could see the questions get easier almost year-by-year.

Yet every year the exam results get better and the government congratulates itself on improving standards while denying the exams are getting easier.

Re:Finally (4, Funny)

eln (21727) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659515)

Tell me about it. It's pathetic how easy math exams are these days. I mean, I really struggled in math in the second grade, and I was lucky to get average grades. Imagine my surprise when I decided to take my son's 2nd grade math test, and I got an almost perfect score! It was so easy! Clearly these kids are being spoiled by lower expectations.

Re:Finally (2, Insightful)

afidel (530433) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659581)

Yeah, I'm sure you would see a similar result in the US. The reason being that you now have to pass the exams to even graduate and simple jobs like working at McDonalds require a high school diploma so making the tests too difficult for the majority to pass is simply unreasonable.

education policymakers need to look good (5, Insightful)

amrik98 (1214484) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659113)

There is strong pressure on the education system to "improve"; and these improvements are measured by tests. Students are generally not going to get smarter, so why not make the tests easier to make it seem like you are doing your job?

Re:education policymakers need to look good (5, Interesting)

Swizec (978239) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659235)

In Slovenia I'm noticing quite a different trend and it also seems to be making the policymakers look good ... or something. My sister is 8 years younger than me and is now in primary school - she's learning stuff I only learned in high school. She was being taught things like fractions in third grade, I didn't even know what the hell fractions were back then.

But maybe we're just being weird here.

Re:education policymakers need to look good (2, Informative)

eugene ts wong (231154) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659609)

I'm from Canada, and we learned fractions in grade 3 or 4, the early 1980s.

tools (5, Interesting)

bsDaemon (87307) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659119)

back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s kids got a slide rule, protractor, compass, and graphing pad. Now it's ti-83+ for algebra class and the ti-89 has more computing power than the original Macintosh.

doing the math is going to be easier, even if they didn't ask harder questions. However, the amount of automation these days means that most people aren't ever going to have to do the harder math in their daily lives.

Slashdotters are an anomaly because our careers and interests require us to do maths all the time. If the future historians are allowed to slack off on their trig tests, so what? They weren't going to be engineers anyway.

They probably should track out classes more than just "regular" and "honors/AP" though. That way the future nobel prize winning poet who is an over acheiver and the future NASA scientist don't have to compete for the teacher's attention to detail in Calculus.

Just a suggestion.

Re:tools (2, Insightful)

xaxa (988988) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659371)

And you carry your TI-93 round with you? I don't, but I still use very basic maths at the supermarket.
Brand X: "Buy one, get one free!"
Brand Y: A few pence cheaper, and a larger pack too.
Brand Z: "25% off!"
How many people today can't work out which is best?

(UK supermarkets even do most of the work for you, below the price for every product is printed something like "1.50 per kg", so it's very easy to compare prices -- you only need to work stuff out if there's an item on multi-buy promotion, in which case the 'per' price will still be for a single item.)

Re:tools (2, Insightful)

everphilski (877346) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659473)

WalMart here in the US generally has the price per unit marked.

And yeah, I do carry my TI-89 with me, but I'm an Aerospace Engineer. Without that, my mechanical pencils and my ID card I'd be naked! :P

Re:tools (1)

sqlrob (173498) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659489)

US does this to, but the stores are somewhat sneaky about breaking the purpose. The units don't always match between. Some will give per ounce, some will give per pound, even on the same type of item.

Re:tools (1)

xaxa (988988) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659563)

Another example:
Petrol is £1.16 per litre. London is 200km away. A car uses 7l/100km. A return train ticket to London is £20, should I take the car or the train?

(I've made that one easier than it would be in the UK, where petrol is sold in litres, but driving distances are given in miles.)

I want to repaint my room. It measures 3m by 4m, and the walls are 2.6m high. How much paint do I need? (The coverage on the can is given in m^2).

My flat costs £400 per calendar month (twelfth of a year). How much do I pay per week?

I think there's plenty of people who wouldn't be able to answer any of these.

(Anecdotal) Proof of Impact? (3, Interesting)

RavenofNi (948641) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659407)

It's been said before, but (imo) today's students are essentially 'weaker' in 'doing' math simply because they don't have to do much of the doing. The result? Easier tests so that more, or at least the same number of, students pass. Schools funding is often determined on this criteria, so no one wants "below passing" students.

When kids start Algebra I with a TI-89 that is drawing tangent lines and running linear regressions (in between games of tetris) for them, they don't learn any of the basic skills. This leads to a general decline in non-assisted capability, leading to a 'requisite' decline in the difficulty of tests so that more students can perform acceptably and schools maintain their funding.

Perfect Example? Shopping the other day in a store who's register was offline. I was -unable- to make a purchase because the register was down. When I offered that we could simply calculate the tax on the purchase and subtract that total from my $20 you should have seen the look on the kids face; would have thought I'd just asked him to land a hampster on the moon w/ just pencil and paper.

Re:tools (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659441)

Slashdotters are an anomaly because our careers and interests require us to do maths all the time.

Given the math skills usually on display here, I certainly hope that's not true, but it's probably not. I bet the large majority of adults here have never had to find a cosine since they graduated from college.

And the only thing our "interests" require is how to use BitTorrent to steal anime.

Re:tools (2, Informative)

Mike1024 (184871) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659583)

doing the math is going to be easier, even if they didn't ask harder questions.
I agree with you; sporting records are regularly improved upon, but no-one is complaining about sprinting becoming easier.

That said, in the linked PDF a 1951 question is stated as:

Solve the equation:

9 * (1-x^2)/(1+x^2) - 7 * 2x/(1+x^2) = 3
A 1970 question is:

Show that (x â" 3) is a factor of

x^3 - 5x^2 - 18x + 72

then find the three points where y = x^3 - 5x^2 - 18x + 72 meets the x axis
While a 2006 question is:

Find a and b when

x^2 + 8x + 21 = (x + a)^2 + b

Use your answer to find the minimum value of

x^2 + 8x + 21.
I can see why someone might say the 1951 question was harder than the 1970 question which was harder than the 2006 question.

Re:tools (1)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659613) the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s kids got a slide rule, protractor, compass, and graphing pad.

I went to school in the 70s and 80s (in Texas) and nobody got a slide rule. It would have been cool if they did, but my only exposure was my engineer father's slide rule. Where did you go that you had such luxury? ;-)

Irony check? (1)

TaoPhoenix (980487) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659125)

Did they get all the logic right in the story?

So what? (1)

Pugwash69 (1134259) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659129)

I failed more maths A'Levels than most people have sat, but still know how to count the pennies in my wallet.

Re:So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659369)

Maybe the reason you only have pennies in your wallet is because you failed those exams.

Just a thought.

Re:So what? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659507)


Good Timing (5, Interesting)

JamesRose (1062530) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659135)

So I have my A level maths exam (core 3) in two days, taking it a year early, and I'm still finding it trivial, and thats because I'm working from '90s papers and they're so much harder. So basically yes, the exam I am taking has gotten easier over the past years. It's not that the questions are easier though, it's because year by year subjects get dropped so you can focus so much more time on one subject so you can quite easily perfect your understangin of it.

That time of the year, already? (3, Insightful)

Ynot_82 (1023749) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659137)

This is trotted out every single year

pass rates go up - exams are getting easier. education system in decline
pass rates go down - teachers not able to communicate with students. education system in decline

Re:That time of the year, already? (1)

bsDaemon (87307) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659385)

The people who make the policy failed math and think everyone else should have, too, cause it was hard. if the next generation is smarter than them, they don't like it. if the next generation is dumb, too -- time to blame the teachers and get revenge!

If... (1)

AioKits (1235070) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659147)

If Sally has a 3 gallon bucket, and Joe has a 2 gallon bucket, how many buckets are there?


Pencils down!

Re:If... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659185)


Re:If... (1)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659245)

Sorry, while 2 factorial happens to be correct mathematically, it is technically incorrect.

Re:If... (1)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659463)

You sir, are technically correct, which of course, is the best kind of correct.

Re:If... (1)

kalirion (728907) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659547)

My favorite one is "What is heavier: a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?"

Blame? Look at the No Child Left Behind Act (5, Interesting)

rjshirts (567179) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659153)

I'm a licensed teacher - Social Studies, not Math - and I've seen many district personnel changing how tests are delivered or graded, simply to make sure that the school is meeting the NCLB standards. As a Social Studies department, we were asked to make certain questions easier to understand, or to eliminate hard to study areas all together in order to make sure that the results would be up to where they need to be. Math teachers in my district have complained a LOT that the district is forcing them to dumb down the tests simply to make sure that scores are where they need to be.
Kids aren't dumber, they just aren't given the opportunity to fail. If they aren't given the chance to make mistakes, they don't learn from them, and unfortunately, that is where the NCLB is leading us.

Re:Blame? Look at the No Child Left Behind Act (1)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659503)

One of my roomates was an SS teacher, he quit over No Child Left Behind. Not only does it lead to "teach the test", it keeps good teachers from going into the classroom in the first place.

Multiple Choice (1)

krovisser (1056294) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659155)

Well, my US university insists on making the math exams all multiple choice--to make grading easier, I presume. However, they convolute the problems so much, and require you to "add both solutions, if any, together after multiplying them by the phase of the moon on July 18th, 1993, and divide by 2.5503342134 to get the answer," or something similar that it makes it extremely annoying. Good thing I'm done with my math requirements.

Re:Multiple Choice (1)

maxume (22995) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659311)

What math classes did you take?

Re:Multiple Choice (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659437)

I can't imagine a university level math course that could use a multiple choice exam. Even the first math course I took in college required all work to be shown, just having the answer was not enough.

DAMN! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659177)

My last calculus class was in the early 1990s. Now, I'm not sure if I should be grateful or pissed.

Calling older slashdotters (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659187)

My Dad was in high school in the late 1950's, he took and passed Calculus, and he told me his high school offered Differential Equations to the top students in math, and if he had tried harder, he could have taken it in high school instead of his freshman year in college.

My wife and I both took Calculus in HS, and Differential Equations in our freshman years of College (mid-90's). Neither of us were offered a chance to take Differential Equations in HS, though.

Are there schools, or does anyone know if High School used to offer math up to Differential Equations?

Get off my lawn! (1)

Nerdposeur (910128) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659195)

Kids these days. Why, back in my day, we had to calculate pi to 5,000 decimal places in our heads.

Oh wait. I'm only 28. And I nearly failed geometry.

The teaching of math and science are doomed. (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659197)

The problem is, our current bottom-to-top emphasis on mathematics and the sciences effectively ensures that all but the brightest, most driven students will be alienated from these core disciplines because of the minutae they are forced to memorize. The prevailing logic would seem to be that this creates a detailed knowledge base for higher learning.

While this is true, very few actually pursue higher learning in these fields because all of the emotion and excitement is gone when math and science are taught in this way. The wonderment that inspired so many young engineers during the space race is gone. Teachers need to address and emphasize the larger concepts to get children excited about math and science.

I think so (1)

n0rr1s (768407) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659209)

I think the exams have become easier. I took GCSE maths in 1991, and I had a chance to compare the papers of those days with the O-levels (the equivalent exam) of a few decades before. I got an easy A grade at GCSE, but the O-levels were way beyond me at the time.

A couple of years ago, I took a look at the latest syllabus, and it appeared that the exams had got even easier.

It's not a good situation for those that go on to take A-level and university courses in maths or science subjects. There is a lot of catching up to do later.

Re:I think so (1)

n0rr1s (768407) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659249)

Replying to myself. I forgot to add: 2/3 of our school year took GCSE maths a year early. That is to say, below-average pupils were considered good enough to take the exam a year early. That shouldn't be possible imo.

Re:I think so (2, Interesting)

UdoKeir (239957) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659361)

When I took my A-levels back in 1987, I'd reviewed all of the papers going back 10 years. The exams had definitely gotten harder. The problems from the 70's were somewhat simpler.

Not quite the same thing as here, but standards, for Maths A-levels at least, had toughened between the 70's and 80's.

Reporting from Ottawa (1)

digitrev (989335) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659215)

Yes. In the Ottawa Carleton Catholic School Board, math got much easier. It used to be that, in grade 12, there were three university level math courses to choose from.
  • Advanced Functions and Calculus - covered trigonometry, exponentials, logarithms, factoring, polynomial division (both long and synthetic), and differential calculus
  • Geometry and Introduction to Discrete Mathematics - covered basic geometric theorems, some counting (combinations, factorials, powers, etc...), vectors, and some basic proofs
  • Some stats course that I didn't take Now, they've left the statistics course alone (from what I've heard), but they've severely crippled the other two. Advanced Functions was given its own course, with 2 full units on trigonometry alone. Vectors and Calculus covers...well, vectors and differential calculus. Everything else was gutted. That's great for Little Sue and Johnny who just need to get their credits, but what about the math, engineering, and physics majors who need to know how to do proofs? It's disgusting, and will just require kids to suffer in their first year of university even more than they already do. But hey, what do I know? I'm just some punk third year math major who suffered first year because of not knowing a thing about series, integral calculus, or proper proof methods.

UkUniversityStudent (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659217)

Maths, and other subjects, becoming easier actually makes it harder for students. Back then, you can do 8 or 9 O-levels, 3 A-levels and that would be enough to get you in a top university like Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial. Now-a-days, students need at least 11 GCSE's (new name for O=levels to those not educated in the UK) and 4/5 A-levels to get in the same universities, avoiding less academic subject like Business Studies, on top of entrance exams because the public and universities have lost faith in the public education. It is time to make the exams harder so that at least with the harder questions, it tests your inert ability that has been developed over time rather than overloading student with so much knowledge to prove themselves. This is a classical case of quantity over quality, if one is to look at it that way.

Re:UkUniversityStudent (1)

FluffyWithTeeth (890188) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659401)

This isn't actually true, it's just a bizarre myth propogated by the high schools for a reason noone can understand. Most english universities these days much prefer 3 A Levels and something else you can put on your personal statement (voluntary work, that kind of stuff).

Re:UkUniversityStudent (2, Insightful)

Manip (656104) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659435)

I think that is more likely the case of pushy parents.

Education is turning into almost a two tier system. There are those kids which are pushed by their parents and aim to succeed and then there is everyone else.

The kids who push hard all fight over a small handful of places in top schools fighting off with multiple public and private schools (who often are rubbing the Uni's asses).

It does amuse me that we have these moral panics about exam difficulty without really addressing the key question - Does it teach then what it intends to? And are the subject's goals in line with what is needed?

Looking at grades as an answer to either question seems about as intelligent as asking the cows about the weather.

Re:UkUniversityStudent (1)

kipman725 (1248126) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659443)

I have an offer from imperial of 3 A's at Alvl and got 9.5GCSE's. My grades in AS and GCSE's were not anything extrodinary. I took the "hardest" A levels and educate myself alot (I'm learning VHDL at the moment). I mean whats the point in 4+ A levels if they are not relevent to the university course, they will only distract from the more important things, the things you leanr yourself. Think about it, if everyone on a course gets 3+ A's at Alevel they have all memorised a simlar sylubus to you, efectivly you are all not unique snowflakes. The only way to distinguish yourself is to learn things that your fellow students haven't even tried.

hmm also I find the 50's questions easier because they have less words in them, it's a maths exam not a comprehension exersise.

Re:UkUniversityStudent (1)

kipman725 (1248126) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659499)

I still think A levels are alot easier though and O levls eaier aswell just the particular questions in the abstract.

The "dumbing down" and muddying of math continues. (4, Interesting)

brycarp (336444) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659221)

Our local school district has unfortunately adopted a math curriculum called "CPM" which is supposed to stand for "College Preparatory Mathematics" - an oxymoron if there ever was one. My wife is a licensed secondary-level math teacher, and does tutoring locally although she wouldn't be able to ethically work in the district if she was forced to use this horrible curriculum that amounts to educational malpractice.

Because the government education establishment in many places has given up on any attempt to maintain the tried-and-true approach to math education that has been employed in the past - building skills step-by-step in such a way that the student's "toolkit" grows in a logical fashion through the different skills, now they are left with a very fuzzy approach that doesn't really build anything on anything, and mostly is concerned with keeping busy doing something that they can pretend is math and pretend that some sort of progress is being made.

The most tragic part of it is that the kids who would have been the real math enthusiasts under traditional teaching methods never get the chance to see the order and beauty of math, because curricula like this completely hide it.

For more info on this, see the Web site .

Because the poor government "education" establishment is failing to really teach math, of course they have to put a happy face on the situation by dumbing down the tests too.

scalability (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659227)

In 1950, the world needed on 1-2 percent of graduates. The businesses and lifestyle was geared that way. Only few engineers were needed for railroad, aviation, shippig, auto, tv and construction.

Today, you need some mathematical background knowledge everywhere. This means that you have to lower the exam standard and let people move on. Today's automobile engineer doesn't sit down with complex geometry solving. Good computer skills with less mathematical knowledge is acceptable too. Such person would have been useless in auto engineering division in 1950.

Re:scalability (1)

digitrev (989335) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659453)

But how much of it is the market affecting the learning process, and how much is the learning process affecting the market?

Same Observation In The U.S. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659251)

I have one son, 4 years out of high school and one just beginning. The difference between their exams and the ones I took 30 years ago is shocking. Worse still is that the decline extends beyond math and into many or most other subjects as well. Worst of all is the great pride that so many people take in this ignorance.

No one is going to say (3, Insightful)

Kohath (38547) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659259)

No one is going to say that the teachers are doing a better and better job every year. No one is going to say that the students are held to higher and higher standards in math and that they are achieving those standards more often than before.

This is because it would be false. You might get arguments about the extent of the change, but none on the direction.

And nothing in education will ever improve in the US as long as the system is union-controlled.

And get off my lawn, too! (1)

Chelloveck (14643) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659263)

Bah! Kids today have everything too easy! Why, back in my day...!

What? It's time for my Metamucil? No, I'll come quietly this time...

My unprofessional anecdotal experience (3, Interesting)

tsstahl (812393) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659269)

has demonstrated that curriculum's have been dumbed down to accommodate a greater breadth of material. The students I see are exposed to more Stuff, but never have any in depth mastery. I am in the U.S., not UK.

School is getting easier. (1)

arthurpaliden (939626) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659275)

To really see how easy school has become over the years just find some childrens books from the early 1900s. You will find that many post-seconday strudents would have a hard time with them.

Re:School is getting easier. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659413)

They are made easier to make sure that the numbers looks better today than 10 years ago. "We are doing better! 10% more a year are graduating math!! Our teaching works. Give us a raise!"

Students are dumber (5, Interesting)

dostert (761476) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659277)

I'm a math professor and I must say, just in the past 10 years, I've noticed the "average" undergrad is A LOT worse at basic math than they used to be. I don't know which was cause and which was effect, but students are worse at math and we're teaching them less up through high school. This needs to change very soon or we're going to be a nation of mathematical idiots in another few decades. It has already started... just look at the percentage of American math PhDs coming out each year.

I agree with everyone else, we need to pay math teachers more. In states like TX a public school teacher makes barely enough to live poorly, and with a math degree, they can make double working in private industry. It is a very hard sell to convince mathematicians to go into education.

The other thing we need to do is not be afraid to actually fail someone. This society has made it so that everyone feels its their "right" to graduate high school and go to college. We need to change this and actually fail people when they can't do the work. If someone doesn't earn a degree, they shouldn't be "awarded" one.

Yep, exams are easier (1)

igb (28052) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659283)

I did my O Levels at what was then a beacon comp, with an intake that many a grammar school would kill for. One (1) of my contemporaries got all As at O Level. Over in high-end selective schools, perhaps 5 or 10% of _their_ intake would manage the same feat. Today it's routine.

I did my A Levels at a technical college from which few conclusions can be drawn, but when I arrived at a redbrick University in 1983 I was dimly aware that people with three As, or maybe (whisper it) FOUR As existed over in the med school (I'm excluding General Studies, with good cause: my college didn't teach it, so I entered myself and got an A, so I presume it's worthless). No one on my Computer Science course had qualifications close to straight As, and this in an era where higher education uptake was about 10%.

Today, _everyone_ in a university like that, three or four times larger, will have qualifications `better' than mine. I don't know what sort of University A (computer science) B (physics) C (maths), or perhaps it's B (maths) and C (physics), I can't remember + A in general studies gets you into, but `not much' I think is the answer. With 40% take up as against 10%.

Looking at my kids' maths, at a heavily selective secondary school my daughter is several years behind where I was at the same age. At O level I did differential and integral calculus, with volumes of rotation a favourite sport, which is now optional at A Level.

Re:Yep, exams are easier (1)

FluffyWithTeeth (890188) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659457)

Considering the A levels are graded on a curve, the percentage of As is hardly a good comparison point...

Mensa and testing... (4, Interesting)

jddj (1085169) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659293)

Mensa won't take SATs from later than 1/31/94 as an indication of your IQ. That says something about changing test difficulty...

Easier or more straight forward? (5, Interesting)

IP_Troll (1097511) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659323)

Looking at the example questions, the earlier questions look difficult, but unnecessarily so. What I mean by that is, they take what could be a straight forward question and then obfuscate it behind a bunch of random noise merely to confuse the test taker.

The newer example questions seemed more rationalized, they test whether you know the theory or formula needed to solve the question without throwing you a curve ball.

Would you rather encourage people to continue studying onto more advanced levels with easier tests, or throw them a GOTCHA question which will totally turn them off to the subject matter?

There is a difference between testing knowledge of the subject matter, and giving the test taker a hard time. A "difficult" question might be great to ponder when you have unlimited time, but in a time pressured test, it is not appropriate.

Maths has changed / evolved... (5, Interesting)

Manip (656104) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659329)

I'm sorry but what do we really expect to learn from this research?

Maths in the 1950s was designed for engineers and scientists in that generation. They learned what they needed.

Maths today is exactly the same. The fact is you can't use 1950s standards to evaluate today's exams any more than you can use today's standards to evaluate 1950s exams.

The only real question is - Are engineers and scientists finding their maths education weak?

The answer in my view is no in most cases. In a limited number of careers the maths they received isn't nearly advanced enough but that would have been the case in the 1950s too.

As I said they're using the wrong measuring stick to measure the difficulty of exams. Nobody needs to know half of the useless junk that kids learned in the 1950s when frankly it is less time consuming and more accurate to use a calculator.

That's just my opinion. I honestly think a lot of this kind of "research" is a result of much older people looking at today's maths and thinking "Why aren't they learning what I did?" While completely ignoring what they're learning that the 1950s students didn't.

Its called "How to cheat mandates" (5, Interesting)

Shivetya (243324) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659363)

Look, you can read about it anywhere. We even had math classes in some cities where success was built around "best attempt" or other such non-sense.

What it all boils down to is that no matter what standard the Federal Government tries to set someone tries to cheat it. That is why there is always such an uproar versus standardized tests. Down here in Georgia they failed nearly 40% of all students in tested grades versus a standardized test. They knew it was coming. They even had practice tests. Is it all the schools fault?

No. Students seem have this sense of inevitability. They are still of the belief that they don't have to. After all anything else they complain about in school gets changed. I don't see their attitudes as defeatism, its entitlement that they suffer. They don't have to do this, that, or what not. We don't have the right culture in schools, especially city schools among minority students. Until we change the fabric of society the MTV generations will forever think themselves above "working hard". They are all going to be rap starts, professional sports players, or worse win the lottery!

We gave up control of our schools to "feel gooders". Now its all about grief counselors and no winners allowed because no one should be a loser. When we removed the reward of success what did we expect? I have seen articles where every student got to walk the diploma line regardless if they graduated just so they didn't feel ostracized. Well tough shit. Your boss ain't going to worry about making a failure to feel good. If you don't perform your in for a world of hurt. I guess you could go into government work, of all categories in the job market they have added more jobs than anyone and everyone knows the saying about how its near impossible to lose a government job.

Schools and students are simply trying to cheat the system. The problem is the schools encourage it because they don't allow for losers. They don't want to hurt little Bobby's feelings so they set him up to fail in life. If they want control of our kids then they should be responsible for them. They get hell bent if someone raises a finger about the Bible in school or complains about sex education yet they are completely aloof when it comes to holding the kids to a standard of education.

Private school was the only recourse I found. Standards had to be met or we might not be allowed to come back. Students were encouraged to be better. I don't see that outside of a few select public schools; you know I hear it all the time how so and so's public school isn't like those others but sorry it is.

Poor math skills of 1st year physicists (2, Insightful)

hairykrishna (740240) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659379)

I know that this story gets touted around every year but I think there's some truth in it. I tutor some 1st year physics students and their math skills are shocking. They can follow 'recipes' well enough to solve questions they're used to. However, present them with a problem where they have to actually think and they're stumped.

Yes, yes, yes and partly no. (5, Interesting)

hyfe (641811) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659405)

First off, I teach maths/IT to 16 to 19 year olds in Norway.

Maths has definitivly become a lot easier here. It takes a lot less work to get good grades now, and there's an alarming lack of focus on basic math skills. There's plenty of A-students who can't do basic math. The norwegian school-system is really fucked up though. There's so much focus on getting the trouble-makers through school, so they're allowed to basically take over classes. I mean, we don't want to send them to special schools, because that would stigmatize them! Never mind the 25 other students in the class, they'll just have to sit there and feel neglected.. Not to mention, without consequences these students never learn. I've had students yell at me straight off at 08:15 in the morning because the last test had some questions which weren't exactly as the ones in the book. They're so mal-adjusted and unfit for real life it's scary.. (ohh.. and just for kicks.. 90% of the worst students are pakestani.. while they make up about 3-4% of Oslo in total..trying to teach them anything is basically a crash-course in becoming a racist)

That said, I work with a couple of really old math teachers, and there's a few subjects like probabilites that are completely new them.. so math has changed. Don't be fooled though, they've replaced all the hard'n'gritty stuff with fluffy feel-nice stuff.

In Norway, we've had two big reforms in the last ten years, and both made the hardest paths easier. Ironically, they also both made the maths for students taking vocational education harder. It's so tragic I want to cry :(.

I agree...or I'm getting smarter (1)

maillemaker (924053) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659459)

I took Calculus a long time ago as part of my Computer Science curriculum. Now that I am going back to school for a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I have to take Calculus III - Multivariable Calculus. Since it has been so long since I took Calc I and II, I took them over again.

I do think that the classes seem easier than when I took them before, and I think the students are generally not as well versed in the prerequisite material as they were when I took them before.

But I am not very upset about this. The fact of the matter is, except for specialized disciplines, _no_one_uses_this_stuff. Every engineer I have ever spoken with has said they never or almost never use calculus.

I suppose it is good that we are all made to take it so that we have an appreciation for what computers are able to do for us these days, but I'm not upset if there is less emphasis placed on rigorous mathematical study. Such study should be required for people who will be going into fields that actually require it, but it doesn't look to me like mechanical engineering is one of those fields.

I just graduated High School. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659469)

And I found that the math levels are largely influenced by self-determination more than anything. I'd say that standardized tests have become easier, but at least at my school there were tons of kids participating in UIL math events with huge interests in math. When I started college, I found the math to be too easy for me.

joedelta (1)

joedelta (1115333) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659509)

I don't know about high schools, but our local public school has my second grade daughter doing long division and adding and subtracting fractions with differing denominators. I know _I_ didn't do that until much later.

Taught to Pass (1)

lostandthedamned (907167) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659517)

I still maintain that I wasn' taught Maths at A level or GCSEm I was taught how to pass a maths exam. For the entire second year leading up to the exams we were taught past papers. In Maths, (as well as Physics, Chemistry and Electronics) I was set each paper, full and mock exams from the previous 15 years. In the end this meant that I coasted my final exams as 75% of the questions on each paper were reprints from previous years that I had already not only done myself but been taken through ideal examples for afterwards. This didn't help when I reaached University as I had very little idea about the mechainics behind the maths causing me (and many other students) to have to pay for extra maths modules to keep up. The entire focus of the school system is not the education of the students but meeting the targets set by the government. It doesn't help that everytime someone raises a set of valid complaints the government springs into action and sets a completely new set of guidelines and targets which the teachers then have to spend more time working out how they can fudge.

to many smart people not good for elite... (1)

posys (1120031) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659519)

but do you know why ? it is because the elite do not need smart people to do all the work, they only need obedient people since we are still not to the point of 100% Robotization where humans can disengage completely from the machinery of economy, yet the computers make it so we do not need math smart people in massive numbers... Remember most people are considered by the elite to be unnecessary except as consumers. Smart well educated people are by and large simply very inconvenient competition for the "leader" class, especially in large numbers. BUT there is the "ROBOTIC WAGELESS ECONOMY" waiting in the wings to correct all this nonsense, [] which ironically, depends on the jinormously leveraged and powerful elite to help achieve: []

I have one thing to say... (1)

mAineAc (580334) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659533)

No child left behind.

Universities giving up on A levels (1)

Andy_R (114137) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659561)

In my time at school (late 80s), universities selected their students by looking at their A-level grades. 4 good A levels was enough to guarantee you a place at a top university. Today I read that universities are starting to set entrance exams of their own because they can't tell who the good students are anymore, as they ALL have 4 or 5 A-levels. More details in the story from todays Guardian []

Happened in Finland (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659565)

I went to high school in Finland around 1988-1991 or so. I was in the "advanced math" group, which they did away with and put everyone in the same group.

I was also able to take a look at some high school math books from the '60s or '70s, and they were much harder.

When I went to uni, the math was a shock! But had I studied the high school math a couple of decades earlier, it wouldn't have been.

scientific explanation (1)

nguy (1207026) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659571)

This educational video explains the biology behind this observation: []

Too true (coming from a UK GCSE pupil)... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#23659579)

I'm just doing my GCSEs (end of "high-school") and have to say this is all too true. Some of the exams, maths in particular, have been insultingly easy.

I finished both maths papers (calculator and non-calculator) with enough time to do things like trace all the writing on the front of the paper, do a perspective drawing of the exam hall, contemplate shouting out some answers and imagine the various possible consequences, and generally get bored in an hour of sitting around doing nothing.

I think the most difficult thing in all of the two papers was solving a simultaneous equation which was disguised in graph form to kind of trick a few people.

What have I noticed? (1)

g0bshiTe (596213) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659597)

Well I dropped out of high school 2nd time in 10th grade. Stayed out of school for 7 years, without cracking a book or studying went and took my GED exam, passed first round, I was amazed that there were people on their 4th and 5th tries taking the GED test. Another 7 years pass, I decide to go to college to further my education and to get a job in computers. Again, without opening a book or studying in 7 years I'm in remedial classes, which I expected but what I saw there I had never expected. Fresh high school students that had graduated the year before in courses equivalent to what should have been Junior and Senior year Maths and English.

In a world where it's been survival of the fittest since the beginning of time, why in education is the policy "No child left behind"?

In the end it's the other 97% of students that suffer, and ultimately every other industry from lack of well educated people.

Or parents that have to pay tuition for their child to take Junior and Senior year Maths and English so that they are ready for college.

To the parents of those children that have learning disabilities, I feel for you, but at the same time I do not feel that my child should suffer a lesser education so that your child feels better about themselves. The real world doesn't work like that, and not everyone gets a trophy for playing.

Then/Now (5, Funny)

Quiet_Desperation (858215) | more than 6 years ago | (#23659611)

Then: Sally is twice as old as Suzy. Three years from now, the sum of their ages will be 42. How old is Sally?

Now: Chloe has 7 apples. How many apples does Chloe have?

Tomorrow: Write the number 5.
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