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Math Scores

November 28, 2003

Letter to the Editor:

Your editorial "Disturbing test scores" is right in terms of its expressed alarm, but in my studied view, things are much worse in American education than the latest results indicate. The instrument cited - the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) - is a test bathed in secrecy, but one known to be the product of the most politically correct wing of the education establishment, a wing with an overriding social-engineering agenda that puts very little stock in pure academic excellence.

Where the largest margin for doubt arises is in mathematics. Having taught for many years in the Washington area in various schools, and this year having tutored extensively in the more affluent parts of the city and its suburbs, I can tell you that math knowledge and proficiency are clearly at an all-time low - quite contrary to the "improvement" shown on the NAEP since 1990. The public needs to be educated in terms of how such a skewed representation is produced.

Because of the NAEP's secrecy, little is known about the material on a given edition. However, it is clear that the general thrust is similar to that of several other current national measures, including the Stanford 9. That particular abomination of an examination virtually forces math departments to ignore basic skills and concepts and to eschew natural sequence and key connections to focus on pretentious, trivial snippets from all over the map (and beyond). The available textbooks cater to such tests and are similarly oriented (in the name of "integrated math," a "broad topical approach" or the like).

A typical high-school-age product of such training does not know his basic arithmetic or multiplication tables, cannot perform the four basic operations on multidigit quantities, can neither long-divide nor obtain a mixed-number quotient, can work only the most spoonfed problems involving fractions, knows nothing about powers or roots, is totally lost in terms of positive and negative numbers, can neither read nor write numbers of more than three digits and (because of such deficiencies) can work no problems of any consequence at the algebra I level or beyond.

Yet such a pupil (especially if he's naturally intelligent) can do reasonably well on the current crop of standardized tests because all of these essentials have been sacrificed to prepare him (essentially by rote) for the very specialized, totally perfunctory material on these tests - much of it culled from advanced areas that any meritorious curriculum focusing on the well-being of the students won't even reach. (And, thus, such a program will be severely penalized for doing things right.)

In my tutoring of middle-schoolers (through the eighth grade) this year in Montgomery County, no pupil has passed the end-of-course math exam that first-graders had to pass to advance to the second grade at the World Charter School in the District, where I was director of studies two years ago. Seniors (most taking precalculus or beyond) whom I taught SAT preparation at an upper Northwest school were given (as a take-home test) the pre-algebra end-of-course exam, which - over a four-year period - 100 percent of my own students had passed.

The average score of these seniors was 17 percent; one of them could correctly answer none of the 125 questions (all arithmetic). As a teacher in the Integrated Design Electronics Academy Charter School, which serves the children of military personnel from all over the country, I saw similar results during several recent cycles.

Do not tell me that meaningful gains are being made in mathematics learning in this country. Precisely the opposite is true. Something is wrong with any standardized test that shows otherwise.

CHARLES R. LEWIS

Washington

Now the blog at Freedom Foundation

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