Passing algebra, flunking middle-school math

New Jersey students who’ve passed algebra, geometry and even advanced algebra are flunking the graduation exam’s math test, which requires a 50% on middle-school questions, writes Derrell Bradford of E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) on NJVoices guest blog.

Students who can’t pass the exit exam on three tries can earn a diploma through Special Review Assessment.

Sixty-eight percent of SRA takers needed the exam because they failed the math portion of the HSPA. Notably, SRA supporters identify this problem and assert that a lack of quality math instruction, or instructors, is catalytic in the breakdown.

But the DOE, after examining the courses these students took, found something more disturbing. Ninety percent of SRA users took, and passed, Algebra I. A stunning 86 percent took and passed Geometry, while 71 percent and 91 percent took and passed Algebra II and Biology, respectively.

New Jersey has suburban schools for affluent whites in which classes teach what they claim to teach, Bradford writes. And it has urban schools  where “algebra” or “geometry” is just a name.

In a recent Praxis test, “42 percent of prospective New Jersey teachers — and two-thirds of minority applicants — failed the math portion of the certification exam,” Bradford writes.

He asks why students should be forced to attend schools that are just going through the motions, pretending to teach algebra in algebra class but leaving students unprepared for any future.

Via The Foundry.

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  1. Pfft, I agree with the main point of the article, that any student who has passed algebra I, geometry, and other advanced math cannot achieve 50% on a exam which probably doesn’t test material higher than 10th grade math (usually geometry).

    Of course, these kids probably have no idea how to properly add, subtract, multiply, divide, or compute percentages or fractions (without these concepts learned by memorization or pencil and paper), they’ll never be able to succeed in higher level math or science, no matter what grade they get from their instructors.

    Sort of reminds of Bridget Green, the New Orleans Valedictorian who couldn’t pass her state’s exit exam despite getting B’s in algebra, geometry, and algebra II (she finally passed on her 7th attempt) (she did not graduate with her class, and was stripped of her valedictorian ranking).

  2. momof4 says:

    Yes, the packaging is very deceptive and it’s nothing new.

    Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. Admission standards for ed schools tend to be a joke; the weakest test scores in the university (also for grad school), even at flagship state schools. They go down from there and some are so awful (check out the University of the District of Columbia – UDC) that they are taking in people who are barely literate and numerate. Once admitted, students spend most of their time on useless ed courses, not on subject knowledge and not on how to TEACH effectively. They go out to the k-12 schools and the whole cycle starts over. The system is BROKEN.

  3. The system is more than broken; I’m beginning to think that the system has been *sabotaged*…

  4. I am pondering ways to reverse the sabotage.

    Can we require use of proper spelling, punctuation and grammar in all communications from teachers to students, parents and the school (except for defined cases, e.g. examples of faulty use), and fire those who don’t know how as “insubordinate”?

  5. The teaching standards are awful. Folks in NJ are trying to improve the State standards to meet ‘world class math’ standards.

    The breakdown is obvious and starts early. In our suburban school, kids fail the first grade entrance exam (reading and math) because they did nothing in kindergarden.

    The 2nd grade teacher surfs the internet all day, while the kids watch disney movies. WTF?

    Its absurd.

  6. Chrissy says:

    Students can know algebra, geometry, algebra 2 and advanced math, and NOT be able to pass middle school math tests. First of all, it has been several years since they took middle school math, and their knowledge languishes without a refresher.

    Essentially, you’re talking about inability to comprehend or calculate correctly with fractions, decimals, percents, know statistical representations (frequency bar graphs, box and whisker plots), etc.

  7. Ben McAuslan says:

    While it does seem extreme in this case I can definitely see students being able to do well in the high school classes and not on middle school math because students are great at remembering processes in bite-size chunks before a test only to quickly forget it later. Middle school math uses a lot of common sense and lays a basis for the concepts you use later. If you don’t truly understand what you’re doing in middle school math it becomes painfully difficult to incorporate new knowledge into your brain. And then on top of it all, once you get to high school you don’t have to do anything without a calculator – I routinely watch kids go to their calculator for multiplication facts they supposedly memorized in 4th grade.

  8. Dave Mandel says:

    Ben There, you misspelled kindergarten. You might be on to something in general, but I hope you don’t mean that kindergartners should be drilled in math facts. Instead, they should be with a good, attentive teacher who gets them excited about building things, planting, cooking, etc. while learning about measurement and quantitative concepts.

  9. Jane Mansfield says:

    As a society we should begin to face the roots of the problem. Derrell Bradford of E3 is speaking on behalf of a pro-voucher, pro-charter schools organization in Newark, NJ. I am the first to attest that many urban public education lacks many ingredients but part of the problem is the powerlessness of the classroom teachers and the freedom to teach what matters.

    Those pro-vouchers proponents are weapons attacking public education not only in cities like Newark and Camden but are also funded by major foundations whose goal is destroy public education in America; therefore the end of democracy.

    Our children deserve a better, truer education in order to globally compete. They also deserve the truth. The political agenda behind E3 is the real question. The best analogy would be the opening of Walmart in a small town and forcing local businesses to close and therefore destroying the cultural identity and authenticity of the community.

    Lets not open a door for corruption but finding solutions for inner city kids to prosper academically and becoming catalysts in improving their communities.

  10. Barney says:

    As someone who visits schools on a regular basis, one of the best ways to help students is to teach the curriculum that is intended for the grade that is being taught. A significant teachers work with content that is often two years below where the kids are and in other cases material is taught that is beyond the developmental age of the children. Teaching the text book or a publisher’s program is not teaching the intended curriculum.

  11. Chrissy: “Essentially, you’re talking about inability to comprehend or calculate correctly with fractions, decimals, percents, know statistical representations (frequency bar graphs, box and whisker plots), etc.”

    Ben: “While it does seem extreme in this case I can definitely see students being able to do well in the high school classes and not on middle school math because students are great at remembering processes in bite-size chunks before a test only to quickly forget it later.”

    Sorry Chrissy and Ben, but as a person that has worked with algebra and calculus most of my life, it’s clear that if you don’t have the middle-school math down pat, you do NOT know algebra. If you have to pull out a calculator to calculate the coefficients when you expand (x+4)*(x-3), you will forget what you were trying to do before you get done – and you certainly will never be able to work it backwards and factor x^2 + x -12, short of running the quadratic formula on your calculator and getting 3.99999 instead of 4. If you can’t place 1/2 + 1/3 on a common denominator, you can’t do it for 1/x + 1/y. If you somehow do arrive at the correct result but cannot graph it, you don’t understand what the numbers mean.

  12. Well, I’m all for good grammar and spelling, but, if the teacher is otherwise qualified in his/her job, and teaches math or physical sciences, let’s not toss that teacher out for being a miserable speller, or having a shaky grasp of grammar. SOME of those teachers are a little dyslexic.

    On the other hand, for the elementary and middle school generalists, making sure that they have mastered the language arts IS essential. With the teaching field so crowded, schools can afford to be picky.

  13. I still think it’s important for all teachers to communicate accurately, but for the upper-level specialties like math and science that may not be so important.

    One wonders what would happen to ed-school enrollments if the criteria for language proficiency were part of the entrance testing.  Since it’s obvious that precious little subject-matter learning goes on in ed schools, making certain that students have these skills before they go in would heal many ills.

  14. Ben McAuslan says:

    markm – I agree with you. My point was that even if a student has no clue about the concepts behind what they’re learning they may still be able to manage getting through homework and tests (within a very limited window). Of course, depending on the teacher in high school the results of that potential experiment would vary widely. But yes, I think if you don’t have middle school math “down pat” algebra and beyond will be a torturous task, if not impossible.

  15. Mentoressa says:

    Precise language is invaluable at all levels. A common understanding of language leads to a shared understanding of ideas and meanings. I am a curriculum director in a public school. This business of concepts being overlooked and grade inflation has been around a very long time. The good news is, however, that technology is letting us see these “curriculum holes” far more easily and far more quickly than in the past. It is also letting us design formative assessment to assure that as a student moves through content, such as middle school math, he/she is retaining the information and, therefore, increasing the chances for using the subskills to think conceptually rather than algorithmically. It is allowing teachers to focus-remediate in a timely manner. If you have never taught, you simply have no idea how challenging this type of instruction is without technology.

    As far dyslexic teachers? Pfft! We don’t need the teacher to be the oldest student in the room. As far as grammar snobs? Pfft! once more.

    I agree that educators should be fired for such transgressions as a dangling participle if parents who are boring snobs can be placed in stocks in the public square and banned from any further communication with the school. Really…pfft!

  16. Mathematics is its own language (I’m told that math types often go to conferences and have long exchanges with colleagues with whom they share no spoken language).  I’d cut a math teacher a lot of slack if they were good at communicating math to students.

    On the other hand, there is no excuse for the elementary-school teachers not knowing their times tables or being unable to properly use “your” and “you’re”, and expecially “its” and “it’s”.  They are supposed to be exemplary, and they cannot teach what they do not know and cannot model.