Declines in High School Mathematics and Science Participation: Evidence of Students’ and Future Teachers’ Disengagement with Maths

Rachel Wilson, John Mack


Recent national analyses have shown declines in the number of high school students studying maths and science and there is concern over participation in STEM education. We report on mathematics and science subject combination choices made by students in the New South Wales (NSW) Higher School Certificate (HSC) between 2001 and 2013 and show a substantial decline in the proportion of students undertaking at least one maths and one science subject. We identify a decline in intermediate (2 unit) mathematics as central to the decline in maths and science combinations and explore this in two further analyses: examining HSC maths participation in general; and among students receiving offers for university Initial Teacher Education (ITE). Between 2001 and 2013 the proportion of students going on to study HSC without any maths tripled (from 3.2 to 9.7%), a small increase is seen in elementary level General maths (from 28.9 to 31.9), while intermediate, 2 unit maths, declined (16.8 to 11.4) and advanced, extension courses, remained stable. For students receiving ITE university offers between 2001 and 2013 there was: a tripling in the proportion with no mathematics at HSC (4.8 to 15.6%); with a large a growing majority in General maths (55.1 to 64.5%); and halving of 2 Unit (30.6 to 14.2%) and extension courses (9.5 to 5.46%). Together these analyses raise serious concerns for maths and numeracy standards and for STEM education and industry. In particular, the declining participation rates among prospective teachers’ are deeply concerning, with the potential to create a vicious cycle of declining engagement with maths in New South Wales schools.

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