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Brilliant ideas from the Washington Post: Learning math is stupid!
Rebecca Goldin PhD and Cindy Merrick, December 13, 2011
Mathematics has become the target of a witch-hunt led by Florida school board administrator Rick Roach.

dinosaurLast week in The Washington Post’s online education blog “The Answer Sheet,” guest writer Marion Brady retold the recent experience of Florida school board administrator Rick Roach, who volunteered to take a set of standardized tests administered to 10th graders in his state, and then to make his scores public. An interesting experiment, to be sure – and one that turned into a scathing indictment of the role of high-stakes testing in determining a student’s future educational opportunities. To best understand just how humiliating and bewildering the experience was for Roach, here’s what he emailed Brady:

“The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction… It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.”

But here’s where both Roach and Brady made their biggest error: they turned criticism of the exams into a witch-hunt for subject matter that they deemed unnecessary –  in particular, mathematics.

In doing this, Roach and Brady conflated two issues: test taking and learning. Testing, in its best form, is a proxy for learning. Standardized tests all too often dictate the activities in the classroom, sometimes inhibiting the learning they are supposed to measure. A critique of the tests, however, has little bearing on the value of the subject matter. A critique of how the tests are used, and whether the use is appropriate for the information gathered, holds tremendous value. Roach uses his poor math score, however, to indict mathematics itself.

Roach shared a description of the material covered on the test with his “wide circle of friends in various professions” to confirm his gut-feeling that (surprise!) most of them do not make daily use of 10th grade math. The math exam, in Roach’s words, “tests information that most people don’t need when they get out of school.” And yet this material persists in public education all across America! What gives?

Presumably, Roach knows his mathematical skills have lapsed. He also knows that despite failing an exam based on long-dormant information in his brain, he has been able to build a successful life, in which he helps “oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget.” At some point in his life, he developed the necessary critical thinking and problem-solving skills he needed to “make sense of complex data related to [my] responsibilities.” He obviously doesn’t consider the possibility that high school math instruction may have done a bit more than fill his head with “information that most people don’t need.”

And Roach dug himself into an even deeper hole with this analysis: “If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.” It’s hard to imagine what such a study would look like. It would be rather useless to ask adults what they use from high school mathematics – those who don’t use math are only reporting this fact in hindsight. (Indeed, just what would an education consist of if the same approach were used to evaluate the content of every other high-school subject?) And just like Roach, many adults may well underestimate the cumulative effect and overall usefulness of the critical skills taught by the study of mathematics, and required of most of the college-educated workforce. 

On the other hand and from the front end, it’s not clear how to ascertain which kids will “need” the “high-level” math (should we identify the future school board administrators in 10th grade?). Is Roach seriously proposing we attempt to identify, in the 10th grade, which kids won’t have a highly skilled job requiring mathematics – or even more efficiently, those who won’t go to college?

Whether Roach needs mathematics is not at issue here, partly because it seems he does not need a job.  But while the U.S. economy is struggling with a current 8.6 percent unemployment rate, jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields or requiring STEM skills are going unfilled because there aren’t enough qualified applicants. According to Harvard government professor Paul Peterson, an author of a study detailing the abysmal performance of U.S. students in mathematics, “the United States could enjoy a remarkable increment in its annual GDP growth per capita by enhancing the math proficiency of U.S. students.”  Translated into dollar amounts, he estimates almost a trillion dollars per year of GDP increase if the U.S. were to raise its level of proficiency to that of Canada. As he puts it, “Those who say that student math performance does not matter are clearly wrong.” And these comments pertain to reaching proficiency, not acquiring advanced-level skills.

Finally, in his conclusion, Brady brashly laments that we are stuck with a system in which “decisions are shaped not by knowledge or understanding of educating, but by ideology, politics, hubris, greed, ignorance…and various combinations thereof,” and that those decisions are “sold to the public by the rich and powerful.” Wow. All this from a sample size of one.

Mr. Roach and Mr. Brady, you rightly call high-stakes testing to be brought under greater scrutiny, and question its ability to evaluate a young person’s potential. Through Mr. Roach’s experiment, you planted a valuable seed of doubt. But then you seriously over-manured it.


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