A new study from the Society of Actuaries (SAI) in Ireland has reported a “sharp decline” in girls’ performance in Leaving Cert higher level Maths compared to boys since 2012.
The report was produced following concern with the SAI about a decline in the proportion of females entering the actuarial profession from the late 2000’s onwards – with the body seeing the reversal of a steady increase in parity in those entering the profession in the previous decades.
The paper found that a decline in the number of new female entrants to the profession “broadly mirror” a gender gap at the highest performance level in Leaving Certificate Higher Level Mathematics — which the body said had been particularly evident since 2012.
The professional body representing the actuarial profession in Ireland said the difference in performance between males and females was not only “very concerning” for the profession here, but would also likely have implications at a wider societal level “in terms of gender imbalance” in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers and female access to high-points third level courses generally.
SPATIAL REASONING A FACTOR
The comprehensive report pointed to research which recorded “an internationally recognised gender gap in spatial reasoning.” Authors said that differences in spatial reasoning ability are known to widen through secondary school years. Due to this, authors said they believed the introduction of “unseen” questions that require spatial reasoning skills in the Leaving Cert exam has “significantly discriminated” against female Leaving Cert students.
“We believe this to be a key driver of the widening gender gap that coincided with the introduction of Project Maths,” they said, referencing Project Maths, the name given to the maths syllabus which has been taught in Irish secondary schools since 2010, and which features application style questions which require not only mathematical skills but also the application of spatial reasoning.
The paper also referenced research from 2021 which found that teenage girls are “generally less confident than teenage boys” when it comes to mathematics.
“The consensus among the mathematics teachers and academics we interviewed was that this confidence barrier can be breached through coaching,” authors noted.
It went on to state that in Ireland, female second-level students are “much less likely” than males to choose subjects which hone spatial reasoning skills – such as Applied Maths, Physics and Design & Communication Graphics (“DCG”).
“Indeed, many single-sex girls’ schools do not offer these more spatially focused, optional subjects,” the report noted. However, it emphasised that these subjects are “directly beneficial” to a student’s ability to perform well when it comes to answering application style questions on the Leaving Cert Maths exam.
The study noted a decline in the percentage of students sitting Higher Level maths who were female, along with a gradual decline in relative female performance at the highest grade in Higher Level LC Maths – something they said had been evident since 2002.
Yet, they said there had been “ a sharp drop in female performance” occuring in 2012, which was the first year Ireland’s new Project Maths syllabus was introduced.
The report noted that males subsequently outperformed females in Higher Level maths for the remainder of the decade, even though the numbers of males and females sitting the exam were “broadly equal” over this period. Only 25 to 30 per cent of the H1s were achieved by females, however this gap “broadly disappeared” in 2020 when Covid-19 saw the introduction of calculated grades.
‘SHARP DETERIORATION IN FEMALE PERFORMANCE’
However, the return to an examination based system has seen the gap between male and female performance reemerge.
The report said “another concerning development” was the “sharp deterioration” in female performance at the highest grade in the 2022 Junior Cycle Maths exam. Authors noted how 2022 saw the introduction of a new approach to learning, teaching and assessment, and a new grading system at junior level, with the introduction of a new Junior Cycle Maths exam.
The Society of Actuaries has presented its findings to the Minister for Education and will host a public webinar on 29th November to discuss the report and its recommendations with stakeholders and interest groups.
The report also refers to research undertaken in Ireland into the “widening gender gap” at the highest attainment level in Higher Level Maths since 2012.
The research, undertaken by professors at TUD and UCD “observed that problem-solving appears to be the pivotal driver” of a gap between males and females which they say is widening.
“A link between spatial ability and problem-solving ability has been proven,” the paper notes, going on to state how research suggests that cognitive differences in the spatial ability of male and female students may be contributing to this gap for high-achieving students in Ireland.
Authors of the research pointed to how the development of females’ spatial ability may help to address the gender gap and enable students to reach their full mathematical potential.
Authors noted how early- stage research in Ireland suggests that this spatial ability gap widens as students move through post primary school, and that it has been proven that spatial ability can be developed through spatial skills training and exposure subjects such as mathematics.
The report laid out a list of recommendations for the Department of Education – describing the gap at the highest attainment level between males and females as “extremely concerning.”
Recommendations included an academic review of the approach to examining the Project Maths syllabus, regarding the introduction of unseen context and application style questions “where spatial reasoning confers an advantage,”along with an investigation of Leaving Certificate Higher Level Mathematics performance by gender by question, to see if the widening gender gap has been “driven by specific question types introduced as part of the Project Maths syllabus.”
The report also recommended that female students must be provided equal opportunity to access subjects like Applied Maths and Physics in schools where these subjects are not currently offered, in order to improve performance in the Leaving Cert exam.
It said “greater efforts” were needed to encourage girls to choose these subjects where they were currently available in schools. Failing that, they said the inclusion of questions of this style on the LC Maths exam “must be seriously reconsidered.”