Facing algebra anxiety

The Education Beat

Solutions: The secret to outwitting these pesky high school test questions, which can be found on the Web, is often in the simplicity of the words.

June 30, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

AWARE THAT HIGH school exit tests are right around the corner -- freshmen in 2001 will be required to pass them -- the Maryland State Department of Education has put a selection of sample questions on its Web site.

You, too, can determine if you're smart enough to graduate by calling up the site, www.msde.state.md.us, and clicking on "high school improvement."

If you're like me, you'll be driven mad by the algebra, particularly the word problems. Algebraic word problems have been troubling me since junior high school, and I'm not proud of my insecurity. There's a reason Maryland requires a year of algebra for high school graduation: Algebra is an aid to clear and logical thinking and a gateway to higher mathematics.

Here's a 110-year-old word problem from a book I read over the weekend, "A Freshman at McDonogh," a fictionalized account of the 1889-1890 school year at McDonogh School by William Talbott Childs:

"The captain of a police boat was ordered by headquarters to capture an oyster pungy whose crew had been dredging for oysters out of season. When the chase began, the pungy was a certain distance in the lead, and the wind gave her a speed of six miles an hour. The speed of the police boat, under steam, was eight miles an hour. Within two hours, the pungy was overtaken, and her captain and crew made prisoners.

"Question: How many miles was the pungy ahead of the police boat when the chase began?"

Childs' account continues: "The sleepy lad was unable to make head or tail of the problem." More than a century later, the Education Beat writer was in a similar fog, at first. "Let x equal the number of miles the pungy was ahead," the lad of 1889 scribbled, "and then he scratched his head and fretted."

Here's one of the 1999 Maryland sample questions that demonstrates how little has changed:

"Jolene wants to purchase a television that costs $250. She has $25 now and will be able to save $15 each week. The television model has been discontinued, and the price will be reduced by $10 each week until it is sold. After how many weeks will Jolene have saved enough money to buy the television?"

And another word problem I've seen more than once over the years: "A car goes 20,000 miles on a long trip. To save wear, the five tires -- that is, the spare tire as well -- are rotated regularly. How many miles will each tire have gone by the end of the trip?"

People like Freeman Hrabowski, a mathematician and president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, love word problems. Hrabowski once told me that he'd rather solve a hard word problem than eat a good steak.

I wouldn't go that far, but when I do solve one, applying logic where I don't know how to use equations, I feel a warm sense of triumph not unlike the satisfaction of completing the Sunday New York Times crossword.

But the thing about word problems is that you can figure them out even if you don't know algebra and couldn't construct an equation to save your life. It might take a little longer, but what you're really doing is constructing equations in your mind.

On the McDonogh question, for example, draw a simple little line graph showing the 16 miles the police traveled in two hours and the 12 miles the pungy traveled. The difference, four miles, is then so obvious that there was no reason for my anxiety or the perplexity of the 19th-century McDonogh lad.

Keep it simple. Concentrate on one thing. Don't complicate with a grand formula. Form pictures in your mind. This is the advice of Sheila Tobias, author of "Overcoming Math Anxiety."

Tobias discussed the tire problem some years ago on an excellent, but long-since defunct, National Public Radio program called "Options in Education."

Don't start by thinking of the tires on the road, she advised. Consider the mileage for each tire in the trunk. The answer, 16,000, will come immediately, since each tire must spend 4,000 miles, a fifth of the total mileage, in the trunk.

"Looking at it that way," she said, "we've moved from a complicated issue, five tires and four on at one time and 20,000 and so on, to a very simple one. One of the goals in working with word problems is to keep them talking, keep them naming things, keep close to words.

"Words are a source of real security for us. Pictures are a source of security. Formal logic and notation are not, for many of us, a source of security." She can say that again.

It turns out, then, that words are important in solving both algebraic and language arts problems. For confirmation, I turned to one of the State Department of Education's sample English questions.

"In 1909, there were few paved or marked highways, only a smattering of service stations, and no road maps as we know them.

"In this sentence, the pronoun `them' refers to (a) highways, (b) smattering, (c) service stations, (d) road maps."

I thought: Home at last.

Pub Date: 6/30/99

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