August 24, 2007

Washington College Students Don't Understand Math

Or so reports the Seattle Post Intelligencer.

Thousands of college students in Washington don't understand simple algebra and must take classes to learn what they should have mastered in high school.

The operative word in that paragraph is "understand." A more accurate paragraph would have been: After a decade or so of trying to improve math understanding, thousands of college students in Washington still don't understand simple algebra and must take classes to learn what they should have mastered in high school.

So that constructivist heavy pedagogy hasn't worked out as expected, or at lest how math educators who didn't really understand how to teach math expected. Just because you made a collage in edschool extolling the virtues of constructivism, doesn't mean it's going to work in practice.

And, we're not talking rocket surgery here either. Here's the kind of sophisticated math these kids are failing to understand.

I hesitate to call problem 1 algebra. And, problem 2, should have been learned in middle school. Or maybe it was "taught" in middle school by having the students draw various configurations of cheeseburgers and french fries, trying to guess and check to find the right answer, and then writing a heartfelt paragraph on the senseless slaughter and exploitation of all the cows and potatoes that went into making them. That's the kind of math that invariably gets you high marks on your math portfolio and allows your math teacher to explain to your parents how well you understand math while relieving her and all your past math teachers from the burden of teaching you how to set up and solve simultaneous equations and the years of prerequisites forming the foundation of that skill.

It's win-win, at least until college because Washinton is the home of the WASL, the most irresponsible of state tests.

Some high school math courses have focused more on standardized tests -- such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning -- rather than on college math standards.

Students take the WASL during the 10th grade, but the amount of math they learn by that time isn't enough to prepare them for college, said Paul Kurose, a math instructor at North Seattle Community College and project director of the Seattle Transition Project.

In the WASL you get credit for drawing cheeseburgers and french fries instead of solving the simultaneous equations as long as you mention at least three PETA talking points in your paragraph.

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