Virginia faces a test as math scores plummet

Jay Mathews
Columnist December 15, 2012

Steve Shapiro, a math teacher at Falls Church High School in Fairfax County, had a sick feeling when he saw the results of last spring’s state math tests. At his school, where more than half the students are low-income, the passing rate on Algebra I dropped from 92 percent to 75 percent. The statewide decline was even bigger, from 94 percent to 75 percent.

The reason was clear. The state school board had made the math tests harder. Geometry dropped from 91 percent to 69 percent, Algebra II from 87 percent to 74 percent. In most elementary and middle school grades, passing rates plunged about 20 percentage points.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

For the first time in this region, state exams demanded not only the correct multiple-choice answers but multi-step problem-solving techniques. The Virginia exams are online, so students had the tools to go beyond filling in bubbles. But they hadn’t seen such questions on the Virginia Standards of Learning tests before. The math was also at a higher level.

State officials defended the changes. They said students would be better prepared for college. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said the “new challenging standards” would ensure that “Virginia students are ready to excel in our globally competitive economy.”

Shapiro applauded raising standards for college-bound students, but to him the state seemed to be ignoring students who had dreams that did not include college or global industries. What of those who looked forward to staying close to home in jobs such as carpentry or cosmetology that couldn’t be exported to Bangalore?

In the new Virginia algebra classes and tests, students are asked to do such things as compare and contrast univariate data sets using box-and-whisker plots. “I suspect that many adults, including some who have professional careers, would be hard-pressed to answer many of these questions correctly,” Shapiro said.

“Is this really what we should be requiring of our future soldiers, auto mechanics, plumbers, et cetera? Why aren’t we offering a curriculum that is more relevant to the needs of these students?” he said.

It makes little sense to eliminate challenging subjects such as algebra for 14- and 15-year-olds on the assumption they aren’t college material. That is too soon to decide on a student’s future. Adolescents without academic skills or interest often change. They mature. A great teacher excites them. They get a glimpse of a college-related career that does not seem as boring to them as it did when they were in middle school.

But Shapiro is right to protest the tendency, particularly in the Washington area, to go too far in the other direction and assume every child is headed for a BA. When I asked Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle why the state school board upgraded the state math standards and tests, he said one of the reasons was that “we have been getting daily feedback from higher education about the percentage of students not prepared for freshman-year math courses.” That’s fine, but we need more for those who at age 17 or 18 choose a different path.

The system in Virginia does not appear to put students at much risk of not graduating. They have to pass at least one state math test, but they have many chances to retake the Algebra I exam. Many teachers are available to help them conquer their weaknesses. To get a passing grade, a student must answer just 25 out of 50 questions correctly.

A bigger problem is the lack of emphasis on teaching non-academic skills that significantly improve high school graduates’ chances of success in the job market, such as persistence, time management, idea presentation, teamwork and critical thinking. Do we need a state test on those subjects before they are taken seriously in our schools?

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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