A Call for Mandatory Math

An Australian report says the disappearance of prerequisites in science and mathematics fields has many students entering universities unprepared, and urges they be reintroduced.

October 22, 2013

A University of Sydney report says that prerequisites should be reintroduced for some postsecondary degrees to help reverse the decline in high school math and science.

It says the disappearance of prerequisites has seen students entering science and health degree programs with no background in math subjects. "Although bridging courses are offered [they] are often not equivalent to upper secondary education," it says.

Echoing a recent call from the Australian Council of Learned Academies, the authors want New South Wales higher school certificate students to be compelled to study math, science or both, and advocate a publicity campaign, particularly for girls.

A co-author of the report, Rachel Wilson, said math and science were victims of the "high-stakes nature" of the Higher School Certificate (the main credential for secondary school students in the region) and a trend toward greater choice. "If there's no requirement for maths and science, and students (want) to strategize and minimize workload, they tend to avoid curriculum-heavy subjects."

Her study tracked 10 years of subject choice at Year 8 level, and how these choices panned out at Year 12. It found that the number of Higher School Certificate students taking combinations of math and science had fallen by 1,000, while overall student numbers had risen by 4,000. Although girls' participation rates were plummeting, the study found "complete stagnation" among boys as well.

Wilson said math and science had given way to "new subjects" such as family, community, legal, business and vocational studies. "We are losing what's conceived to be an educational core when we talk about liberal arts education. That has always included maths and science."

This had forced academics to play catch-up at university. "In most universities there's not one maths 101 (course) for first year -- there's a range of courses to deal with students' different backgrounds," Wilson said. "There are proposals to create university units which cover the basic high-school curriculum, because (students) need it to move on."

Wilson said a doctrine of "increased choice" had seen prerequisites all but disappear from undergraduate courses in the past 15 years. She acknowledged reintroducing them could deter students who might drift back into science or math at the university level, and said schools must change their rules.

Other developed economies required senior high-school students to take at least some math, with "a very large proportion" insisting on science as well.

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