Mathematics “glass ceiling” raises equity concerns

Mathematics “glass ceiling” raises equity concerns

New South Wales Year 9 students were being directed into mathematics pathways that hinder them from taking STEM degrees and careers, a new study from University of Newcastle revealed.

In the current NSW Stage 5 (Years 9 and 10) syllabus, mathematics is organised into three pathways or streams, where only students in the highest stream are taught the knowledge required to do Mathematics Advanced or Mathematics Extension in Years 11 and 12.

The research titled “Grouped out of STEM degrees: the overlooked mathematics ‘glass ceiling’ in NSW secondary schools” found that this ability-streaming often begins at Year 7, and that by Year 9, more than two-thirds of students were funnelled into Mathematics Standard 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,” Felicia Jaremus, lead researcher and currently taking PhD studies at the University’s Teachers and Teaching Research Centre (TTRC), said.

The research also noted that while Australian secondary schools tend to focus on the benefits of grouping students with perceived “higher ability”, many international studies have found that this system has placed students from lower socio-economic backgrounds at a serious disadvantage.

“Our findings raise serious equity concerns, particularly with a greater push for universities to re-introduce high-level maths prerequisites,” Jaremus said.

“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.”

Disadvantaged students miss out

Jaremus added that high level maths in NSW was 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,” she said.

The research also revealed that most Year 9 and 10 respondents who were not in the high-ability group were unaware of the “opportunity-based consequences” of their mathematics stream and did not know 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,” Jaremus said.

“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.”

Laureate Professor Jenny Gore, TTRC Director, admitted that the current system posed 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,” she 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.”

Laureate Professor Gore said that equity in education should a top priority for the government.

“With the latest government plans to boost student numbers in STEM degrees, we must ensure more students can access these opportunities”.