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ALERT: New MN math standards torpedoed
by MN Department of Education


December 2, 2004

Severe damage will occur to K-12 math education from the new testing guidelines now being promulgated by the Minnesota Department of Education. If left unchecked, these new guidelines will seriously retard the ability of Minnesota high school graduates to succeed at college.  

Some background:
When Minnesota adopted the Profile of Learning in the mid 90’s, it also adopted a new approach to teaching mathematics. This new approach is called “integrated math,” “new math,” “constructivist math,” and other things. Critics sometimes call it “postmodern math.” This constructivist math is in contrast to “traditional math,” also referred to as “computational math.”

In 2003 the Minnesota Legislature repealed the Profile of Learning. One of the reasons it did so was because constructivist math was proving to be a disaster. Dr. Lawrence Gray, Director of Undergraduate Mathematics Education at the University of Minnesota, has stated that reform math (also known as integrated or constructivist math] was depriving Minnesota students of a good math education. Specifically Dr Gray said that:

1.  University students who had taken reform math in K-12 were at a huge disadvantage in being able to succeed in university-level mathematics.
2.  Students taking reform math were not learning enough algebra to prepare them for college math.
3.  Many university students who took reform math were dropping out of math classes when they discovered they would have to take remedial math to succeed at the university.
4.  High school students taking reform math were one to two years below grade-level in their math skills.

In 2003, the Minnesota Legislature also adopted new math standards. These new standards removed constructivist math from the state requirements and substituted traditional math in its place. EdWatch played an important role in this change. Dr. Gray and many others were pleased. Does this mean the battle is over? Unfortunately, it does not.

Guidelines for new assessments:
The Minnesota Department of Education is currently formulating guidelines for the new state tests (MCAs) in mathematics. To the horror of Dr. Gray and others, the guidelines for the new tests are based on constructivist math (the old Profile math), not traditional math. In some cases, the benchmarks that were adopted by the legislature and included into Administrative Rule have actually been rewritten in the new guidelines to change the intent of the benchmarks. In some cases the guidelines restrict the scope of questions so that they lower the assessment level of the benchmarks by a grade or two. The new assessments guidelines also over-use calculators.

This is happening even though federal law (NCLB) requires that state tests be aligned with the state standards. (Bureaucrats can be quite clever in circumventing state and federal laws.) Since the tests largely drive the curriculum, Dr Gray and others believe these new tests will have a damaging effect on math education in Minnesota.

Dr. Bert Fristedt, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the U of M, in an e-mail dated 12-1-04, said that the Department’s new test guidelines should be opposed because the old Profile math (constructivist math) does the following:

1.  Contains a “doctrinaire view in favor of group-learning” over individual learning.
2.  “Algebraic skills and arithmetic skills” become “casualties” of math education.
3.  Tries to be “skill-oriented without [teaching] the mathematical reasoning.”
4.  Has the effect of a “bias against students not in the main-stream culture.”

Professor Fristedt also agrees with the criticism of constructivist math described by Dr. Gray as outlined above. Fristedt and Dr. Gray were both influential in the writing of the revised math standards in 2003. Fristedt and Gray, along with all other opponents of constructivist math, however, were excluded from the process when the Department of Education wrote its guidelines for the new tests. The Department obviously has an agenda, an agenda being carried out contrary to federal law, contrary to the standards adopted by the Legislature and contrary to the wishes of the Minnesota public.

Professor Fristedt stated in an e-mail dated November 27th:

It is my opinion that the draft test specifications put out by the Minnesota Department of Education on September 20, 2004 are a disaster for mathematics education in K-12 in Minnesota…it is quite clear that the agenda was far different from alignment with the Spring 2003 math standards adopted into Rule by the Minnesota legislature and governor.

About one-third of Minnesota K-12 schools teach constructivist math. Two-thirds teach traditional math. A few schools offer both. The 2003 state education standards adopted by the legislature were having the effect of moving schools back to traditional math. The new test guidelines, if left in place, can be expected to reverse that direction.