HSC maths and science on the decline

21 October 2013

Urgent review of HSC policy, including the reinstatement of maths and science as compulsory subjects, is needed in order to curb a "disappointing" decline in the disciplines over the past decade, a new report by University of Sydney researchers has found.

The report shows Australia risks falling even further behind in international educational benchmarks unless there are major reforms to boost the flagging number of students studying maths and science combinations in their HSC.

Honorary Associate Professor John Mack, from the School of Mathematics and Statistics, Dr Rachel Wilson from the Faculty of Education and Social Work, and the late Barry Walsh analysed data from all Year 8 cohorts in NSW between 2001 and 2011. They recorded trends in subject choices to reveal the percentage of students who go on to study maths/science combinations for their HSC.

The authors found that completion of a maths/science combination for HSC studies declined by 1043 students over the course of the decade, despite the overall student cohort rising five per cent in this same period. In 2011, just 16.2 per cent of students went on to study mathematics plus at least one science subject in the HSC, compared with 18.3 per cent in 2001.

The decline was most pronounced among female students, with the proportion of girls undertaking these subjects falling from 16.8 per cent in 2001 to 13.8 per cent in 2011. Fewer females undertook maths/science combinations in their HSC than in the 1980s.

Co-author Dr Rachel Wilson says the figures highlight wider issues of maths and science attainment inherent in the NSW education system.

"This is just another disturbing element of what is a pretty depressing picture," she says.

"Our paper shows there's a gender disparity, but there's stagnation of the male rate as well. The problem is more than one of gender."

Reintroducing compulsory maths and science subjects is necessary to help safeguard Australia's future prosperity, with these subjects at the centre of 21st-century skills, Dr Wilson says.

"That seems like quite a steep requirement, but we must remember that it was in place until 2001. Even with the reinstatement of these subjects, we are still behind current international benchmarks in terms of the sorts of curriculum covered for high school graduation."

She points to South Korea, Japan, China and Finland as examples of countries that require all university entrants to have attained satisfactory results in secondary-school mathematics.

"If we're to remain economically competitive, we must make some tough decisions about this issue."

Honorary Associate Professor John Mack says the findings raise significant questions over the preparedness of school-leavers for entry into university, especially in maths, science and engineering courses.

"An ATAR by itself won't necessarily enable you to make up the knowledge and skills gaps in these 'barrier' first-year subjects," he says. "In my experience, short-term bridging courses, offered over the summer break, rarely provide a coverage sufficient to provide that extra knowledge and understanding that can make all the difference to a first-year experience."

The authors call for universities to reintroduce appropriate HSC prerequisites for normal entry into selected degree programs, as well as public education programs on the importance of these disciplines, as a way to redress the stagnation and decline in student participation rates.

Contact: Emily Jones

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