October 14, 2001|By Gregory Kane

JAMES, THE annoying buzzard, had offended me. I don't know what he did exactly, but it warranted a punch right in the chest.

James responded with a much harder, and no doubt more painful, shot to my chest. Or maybe it was the other way around: It was I who had offended James, and he had punched me in the chest. When you're 10 years old and male, you're always getting offended and chest-punching the offender.

Pretty soon we were standing, squared off from each other and about to go at it right in Mr. Fugett's fifth-grade classroom at Public School 141 in West Baltimore. Mr. Fugett intervened just moments before James would have beaten my brains out and sent both of us to the vice principal's office.

I can't remember his name, but the vice principal was a 30ish, bespectacled, bookish black fellow who lectured us about setting back pugilistic sciences 500 years and then sent us to class. As we were leaving, he called us back.

Here's something for the two of you to work on, he said, handing us each several papers stapled together. He must have figured we had too much time on our hands.

I looked at the sheet, which had math problems I'd never seen. I had to add, multiply, divide and subtract these strange things with one number on top, a small horizontal line and another number on bottom.

Later, at home, my mother looked at the test.

"Gregory," she said with delight, "this is a test for you to skip a grade!"

I didn't have the heart to tell her.

The strange numbers were fractions, of course. Thanks to Mr. Fugett and a plethora of other superb public school teachers in the Baltimore of the 1950s and 1960s, I learned about them. And about the decimals and percentages and the algebra and geometry to boot.

So when Donna Watts, a math specialist with the State Department of Education, gave me an old, 30-question version of Maryland's functional math test, I breezed through it. Got all 30 questions right in less than 10 minutes. Did them in my head, too.

This is roughly the same test -- the questions vary, but the level of difficulty is about the same -- that totally baffled 82 percent of the city students who took it recently. Sun reporter Erica Niedowski gave an example of four of them in her article Friday. Here are others.

Rename 80 percent as a decimal: A. .80 B. 8.0 C. 80 D. .080

The weight of a person would best be measured in: A. kg B. g C. m D. cm

Solve: 8% of 16 = A. 128 B. 2 C. 1.28 D. 12.8

Find the most reasonable answer for the cost of 7 pens if 1 pen is on sale for $.59. A. $.08 B. $4.20 C. $3.50 D. $14.13

You know the answers, too, if you were born in the baby boomer generation and had teachers like mine. You can rattle them off in your head in the blink of an eye: A, A, C and B. But many city students couldn't handle them. And if they're snafued by those, how are they going to handle these?

A video store charges a one-time membership fee of $12 plus $1.50 per video rental. Which of these equations represents the amount (A) a customer spends, in dollars, for v videos? A. A = 1.5v - 12 B. A = 1.5v + 12 C. A = 12v + 1.50 D. A = 12v - 1.50

A ball is tossed upward with an initial velocity of 42.5 feet per second. The equation for the velocity (v) of the ball after t seconds is v = -32t + 42.5. After how many seconds is the velocity 0 feet per second? Round the answer to the nearest tenth of a second. A. 0.8 seconds B. 1.3 seconds C. 10.5 seconds D. 42.5 seconds

What is the sixth term for the following pattern: -1, 0, 3, 8, 15, ? A. 20 B. 22 C. 24 D. 35

The latter three questions are from the new functional math test students will have to take. They're from the section that covers functions, algebra, data analysis and probability. There's also a geometry, reasoning and measurement portion.

That's the bad news for those of us now fretting about the reading and math functional test results of city students. The worse news is that some folks are complaining that even the new test is too easy.

We can search for someone to blame, but finger-pointing is easy. There are no easy answers, but it's a sense of desperation that causes me to shout to Mr. Fugett and all my other teachers:

Where are you now that you're really needed?