State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said recently: "I am unhappy when I hear an employer who has to interview 50 students to get three who can do simple math or fill out an application." She also found troubling the high number of Maryland graduates who need to take remedial classes the first year of college.
I strongly agree. Having Maryland high school graduates fluent in arithmetic and not needing to take remedial algebra in college should be the first two math priorities of the state Department of Education.
Instead, the department, which Grasmick heads, continues to rely on what I and Homeroom columnist Karin Chenoweth call its pretend algebra exam ["Homeroom," Dec. 25, 2003].
In fact, the Maryland State Department of Education's math curriculum for grades 1 to 8 and the pretend algebra exam are going to reduce the number of students who can do simple arithmetic and will increase the already high number of Maryland high school graduates who will need to take remedial algebra classes in college.
A major reason for this incongruity is that students get to use their trusty graphing calculators on Maryland's pretend algebra exam.
Given a batch of numbers, the graphing calculator will easily provide a graph of a so-called "straight line of best fit" even when it is inappropriate to use a straight-line fit.
Calculators are one reason that John Wisthoff, a member of state Board of Education and retired Anne Arundel Community College math professor, told the board's members at their December meeting that he was concerned students are not required on the state algebra exam to do calculations by hand.
Yes, it is important to teach students how to do math with graphing calculators. But they should also be required to learn how to multiply 23 x 37 and to solve 4x = 2x + 10 the old-fashioned way, without the aid of a graphing calculator. But neither multiplying 23 x 37 nor solving 4x = 2x + 10 by hand is included in the syllabus for Maryland's pretend algebra exam.
The misguided High School Assessment's pretend algebra exam is about to become a high school graduation requirement.
This has been putting pressure on Maryland schools to teach to the test, which means not teaching arithmetic in a thorough manner, and less time for teaching students how to do algebraic calculations, including the solving of simple equations by hand. This will result in high school graduates with weak and insufficient knowledge of algebra.
About three in eight (38 percent) of graduates from a Prince George's County high school in 2000, who attended a Maryland college in 2000, needed remediation in math. This is a jump from 31 percent of Prince George's graduates in 1998 (and 24 percent in 1995).
This is only counting the better students, those who completed the college preparatory course of study, which includes three years of math. Among the weaker Prince George's graduates, those who did not complete the college preparatory course of study, 47 percent needed remediation in math in 2000, up from 41 percent in 1998.
(Data come from "College Performance of New Maryland High School Graduates -- Student Outcome and Achievement Report" for 1999 and 2002, the most recent SOAR published, by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.)
The Montgomery County public school system aligned its K-8 math and Algebra I curriculum with the state's math curriculum, and so that county's schools now allow too much time in Grades 1-8 for superficial geometry, superficial data analysis and pretend algebra, and too little time for arithmetic. This will produce more students who cannot do simple arithmetic, the crucial background for learning real algebra.
Changes in the curriculum (in Montgomery County) are cited as a main cause for students' deficiencies in basic algebra, which are manifesting themselves in higher-level math courses that require an understanding of concepts taught in Algebra I.
"Our Algebra II students are worse than ever. Our pre-calculus students are worse than ever. It's falling apart as we go up the ladder," said Maria Costello, the lead Algebra teacher at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
Our children deserve better.
Jerome Dancis is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland at College Park. His articles on math education and mis-education are on his Web site, www.math.umd.edu.