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Degenerate maths and the mystery of the disappearing report

By John Ridd - posted Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On Friday, January 29, the Cairns Post had a monster headline on the front page: “We Suck at Maths”. The sub headline was “two out of three FNQ schools aren’t making the grade”.

The basis for that candid headline was the “national test” results at Years 3, 5, 7 and 9; which showed that in mathematics local children were doing rather worse than the national average. Since then there have been articles in some Far North Queensland papers by individual schools claiming to be better than average and really good.

More than 20 years ago at the high school where I worked we had a peculiar Year group that was notable for the fact that almost all the gifted students were lazy. The results for a maths exam in Year 12 were poor. In a corridor I met a very gifted lad from a class I did not teach who I knew had only got about 70 per cent. I told him that his result was feeble. He defended himself by saying “but I was top”. True, he was. In a foul temper I yapped that “even a pile of horse droppings has one turd at the top”.


That is the big problem with the “national tests”. It compares students and groups of students just within Australia. However it is a brute statement of fact that Australian students are extremely weak compared to those in many other countries. International tests Trends in International Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) show that the standard of maths in Australia is at best very weak. Not only are we beaten by the “big boys” Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Korea who are out of sight better than Australia, but we are also beaten by a mass of countries such as Hungary, Bosnia Herzegovina, Malta and Lithuania.

But there’s more: a student who does well on the TIMSS test is listed as being “Advanced”: 45 per cent of Taipei students reach “Advanced”. In Australia 6 per cent achieve “Advanced”, in Queensland “the Vacuum State” only a disgraceful 3 per cent.

But there’s even more: in algebra the “gateway to educational opportunity” the global average on Year 8 TIMSS was 500. Australian students managed 471.

The national tests, called NAPLAN, when first released a year or so ago showed that Queensland students are, overall, the weakest in the country except for Northern Territory. The Queensland government employed the Australian Council of Education Research (ACER) to examine the situation in detail. In secondary maths in 1964 Queensland was top, in 1978 top again, but in the years since then we have oscillated between 4th and 5th. As the report puts it, the decline represented “more than two years learning”.

Contemplate the implications - on entry to Year 11 a student’s grasp of mathematics nowadays is roughly that of an exiting Year 8 student 30 years ago. The line peddled by apologists for the Vacuum State’s results is that the children are younger than in other States. True, but of dubious relevance. The students were just as young in the 70s but were the best in Australia. On a personal level the decline means that my children went through when Queensland was top, now my grandchildren go through when we are weak as water. We now peddle degenerate maths to the unsuspecting students.

That outcome was as expected. For years now, when tutoring Year 11/12 students in Mathematics I use old Year 8 and Year 9 textbooks many times every week without exception.


The fact is that maths in all schools in Queensland is pitiably weak by international standards. Is doing well in a contest where all the competitors are weak really anything to be proud of?

The “league tables” based on the NAPLAN tests are just a contest to see who is the top turd. Agreed it is better to be an upper level turd than a low level one, but you are still something that has fallen out of the back end of a horse.

So what is the cause of the dreadful decline in maths in Queensland, a decline that is at all levels, in all school types and in all geographical areas of the State? In other words, what is the horse that has dropped this pile on our children? It must be a state-wide body and it must influence all schools everywhere without exception.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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