April 23, 2002

IT'S POSSIBLE that the math placement exam for Baltimore City Community College is too tough, as Abell Foundation President Bob Embry says it is. And it's possible that low scores on the test, which force students to take remedial courses, are at least partially responsible for the college's high dropout rate.

But allow us to make a very different case from Mr. Embry's foundation's with regard to how to fix this problem.

Abell suggests the answer may lie in relaxing math standards for community college students, to allow them to get through. But that presumes the test is the problem - not students' preparation for it. What if the state took the opposite tack and beefed up high school math requirements? Would it be such a crime to ask more, rather than less, of students seeking higher education?

This issue is a sticking point in many education circles. The growing number of assessment tests and state and federal education requirements has many people saying, "Enough." School is too tough on kids, they say, and too test-heavy already.

On the flip side, though, there's evidence that despite the testing and standards frenzy, too many students still leave high school without a grip on the basics. Four-year colleges report record numbers of students needing remedial help in English and math, costing between $1 billion and $2 billion annually. In Maryland, 43 percent of all community college entrants need remedial help.

Then there's the anecdotal evidence of pathetic adult math skills. Cashiers who can't make change without the register's help. Employers who can't find workers to handle the most basic mathematical issues.

Maryland officials should keep those societal problems in mind as they consider this state's college math placement exams.

Why not require more than algebra and geometry for Maryland high school students? Or stiffen elementary and middle school math standards?

No, the state's community college entrance exam shouldn't give math majors fits. But it should reflect a respectable level of math knowledge - and students should be required to have that knowledge before they leave state high schools.