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April 10, 2013 at 7:00 AM

The Math Wars: Chickens come home to roost

(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / Seattle Times)

(Illustration by Gabriel Campanario / Seattle Times)

I read with great interest, and no small amount of sympathy, the Seattle Times story about high school seniors who may not graduate because they have not passed the state required math test. As Times education reporter Linda Shaw noted, these students have “rented caps and gowns, purchased graduation announcements, made plans for college or career training,” and it will all be to no avail if they cannot demonstrate proficiency in math.

I feel for the students whose walk across the stage is threatened. And I hate to sound like a parent wagging a finger and saying, “This is for your own good,” but the tough approach taken by schools is for students’ own good. Graduating from high school without proficiency in basic math is an academic short cut with serious economic consequences.

A real-world example is General Plastics Manufacturing Co. in Tacoma where prospective employees need only a high school diploma. Applicants are given an 18-question math test and they can even use a calculator. Questions include asking how to convert inches to feet, reading a tape measure and finding the density of a block of foam. It may be basic math but as a recent McClatchy story pointed out, only one in 10 General Plastics applicant passes the test.

One can argue, as a Mother Jones blogger does, that General Plastics should raise its wages to get applicants with better math skills. But that would do absolutely nothing to brighten the employment prospects of those who cannot pass the math test.

Years into the math wars, public education remains stuck at a curious crossroad between increased academic rigor and the fear that some students are not capable of doing rigorous school work.

We have to get over this. Most jobs of the future will require math proficiency and some post-secondary education – apprenticeships, two-year or four-year college degrees or other post-high school education plans. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce compared unemployment numbers with jobs openings and found far more jobs for people with post-secondary education, than those without. Pay corresponded with education. You can’t escape a solid education, including math.

Back to the high school students struggling to hold on to their dreams. I’d like to know how their schools have helped them besides consigning them to repeat failed math classes. Timelier intervention by schools, say 8th or 9th grade might have uncovered potential problems. At the very least, tutoring, summer school and other support services could have been in the works a year or two years ago. Broader district-based efforts may include changing curricula and ensuring math teachers are well-trained to teach math.

It would be great to have some numerical context with which to view the math problem.  According to the Times story, about 8,000 students statewide have passed the state’s reading and writing exams, but not math. Expect that number to be reduced as scores from January’s round of state math tests are tallied and other students learn they met standards with a collection of their math work.  About 90 students in the Seattle school district are not on track to graduate because they have not passed the math test. That’s a fraction of the district’s 2013 graduating class, but scope is important.

Comments | Topics: children, Education, graduation

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