Set the bar high in math, ensure students clear it

October 08, 2002|By Donald N. Langenberg

MARYLAND'S EDUCATION Department is fielding a new high school assessment (HSA) system, a set of end-of-course examinations intended to measure the performance of students in core subjects. The results are expected to be part of the high school graduation requirements for every student.

The presidents of all Maryland public universities and I signed a statement in 1997 supporting development of the HSA. It stated that "we have committed ourselves to align higher education admission requirements with the assessment standards and to incorporate the program goals into our preparation of the next generation of elementary and secondary teachers."

That's a worthy goal, but it is achievable only if the HSA standards are sufficiently high to ensure that any student who meets them is really prepared for success in college. That stark reality was illustrated by the recent Sun article about the dismal math literacy levels of many entering freshmen in our universities and the need for expensive and time-consuming remedial programs.

I recently worked through all 49 sample items posted on the Maryland State Department of Education's Web site for the forthcoming Maryland High School Assessment on Functions, Algebra, Data Analysis and Probability.

It's a pretty good test, but for two things: There is precious little algebra in it, and the level is too low. (A mathematician colleague has characterized the level as about sixth-grade. The course related to this test is taken by most students in the ninth grade.)

If the sample test accurately represents what is to come in the HSA, I fear that many high school graduates will be led to believe that they are good at math, but will require serious remediation in college. That is especially likely if they take similarly unchallenging courses throughout high school or are allowed to evade further exposure to any substantial mathematics.

We have heard the arguments for setting academic standards that most students can meet without much effort. They include the popular myth that only a few students have the special talent required for mathematics, so we can't realistically expect most students to learn it.

Recent international comparisons show that American students do about as well in math in elementary school as their foreign counterparts but steadily lose ground through middle and high school, finishing at the back of the pack. I doubt that adolescent hormones kill math ability. Rather, I suspect our schools fail to give math sufficient continuing emphasis, thereby making poor performance inevitable. Our students can't be expected to learn what they're not taught or what they are taught poorly.

Other foolish -- indeed, irresponsible -- arguments include the assertion that math literacy is unnecessary in most careers and that we might be embarrassed if our students perform poorly in math. Too many do, and we should be embarrassed. The first step in dealing with a serious problem is to acknowledge that it exists.

Then we must provide our students, their teachers and parents with an honest and accurate understanding of what it will take to succeed in tomorrow's world, and we must set the bar high and do whatever is necessary to help students surmount it.

That includes establishing school environments of consistently high expectations maintained by teachers fully capable of bringing all of their students up to internationally competitive performance standards. To do less is to deny our children access to important career paths and to resign our nation to also-ran status in today's global knowledge-based economy.

Donald N. Langenberg is chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, regents' professor of education K-12 and professor of physics and electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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