Friday, December 16, 2011

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.

Last 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.” 

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