Test certifies job-ready graduates

ACT’s WorkKeys certifies students are ready for work, reports PBS. Employers support it, but few high school students know it exists.

JOHN TULENKO: From the outside, Hoffer Plastics in Elgin, Illinois, looks about the same as it did when it was founded back in 1953. Inside, it’s a different story.

Bill Hoffer is the CEO.

BILL HOFFER, Hoffer Plastics Corporation: We have got job after job that 20 years ago would be a full-time operator. Now it’s a robot.

JOHN TULENKO: There are fewer workers, but they’re required to do more.

BILL HOFFER: They need to be able to read blueprints. They need to follow procedures, document what they’re doing. And that’s all very important.

Pat Hayes, CEO of Fabric Images, doesn’t know what an A in math means. “Where did you go to school? What level of course? Was it accelerated? Was it a college prep course? I don’t know.”

Both Fabric Images and Hoffer Plastics use WorkKeys to assess job candidates’ math, reading and information locating skills. Using workplace scenarios, the exam measures “how well individuals can decipher charts, graphs and other visual information, convert ratios, measurements, and make calculations across a variety of situations, and effectively comprehend memos, instructions and other authentic workplace documents,” says Tulenko. “There are also tests of visual observation and listening comprehension.”

Recent high school graduate Sarah Rohrsen was accepted at a four-year college, but couldn’t afford it. She took a job at Wendy’s. Nine month later, she applied for a job at Hoffer Plastics, did well on WorkKeys and landed a well-paying full-time job with benefits as an inspector.

Test takers can earn a work force readiness certificate called an NCRC that’s respected by employers. Superintendent Jose Torres wants 75 percent of his students to earn a gold certificate in five years.  

JOHN TULENKO: So we went to Elgin High School, a predominantly low-income school where administrators say half the students go directly into the work force, to see how they were doing.

Raise your hand if you have heard of something called an NCRC certificate? No hands. OK.

It was like this in virtually every classroom we visited, and this was four years after the district adopted the 75 percent goal.

Only 22 percent of the district’s students earn a job readiness certificate.

Career readiness isn’t a priority, say teachers.

LAURIE NEHF, Elgin High School: I’m not told to have them job-ready. I’m told to have them college-ready.

. . . JOHN TULENKO: Last year in math, 60 percent of students missed the mark. A number of teachers here told us it’s not uncommon they find students in their classes who have yet to learn the math taught in middle school. Regardless, these students are placed in algebra and geometry.

LAURIE NEHF: They just shut down. They get very frustrated. We won’t accept meeting kids where they’re at and helping them where they’re at.

I would love to spend all my time working on percentages, fractions, all that stuff with number sense. That number sense skills is what matters in the real world.

Providing alternatives to the traditional high school math is risky for high schools, says Tulenko. The algebra-geometry sequence is what’s tested.

North Korean lesson: Geometry kills

How do you motivate kids to learn geometry? A North Korean video tells kids they can use it to kill Americans, writes Marc Ambinder on The Compass.

After a rabbit-chasing intro, Sopal runs into a classmate and tells him he doesn’t need to listen in class. The homework is easy because the degrees are printed on his compass.

Back in his room, Sopal begins to do the homework. But he’s confused. The question asks him to draw a 30 degree angle and a 90 degree angle. He tries, but he pencils in between the two and draws a helmet with the letters “US” on them. Frustrated, Sopal turns his compass into a gun, and pantomimes several shots at the U.S. helmet he has just drawn.

Then he dreams.

His homework paper turns into a bird that turns into a scene of attack. U.S. battleships approach. The boy has to muster his friends to help fight off the Americans.

Yes, pencils turns into rockets. Desks transform into tanks. Martial songs fill the background.

And yes, the boy must save the day at the end by actually using the protractor as its intended, because he needs to align the rocket properly in order to hit the invading U.S. ships.

Much of my high school math classes were devoted to calculating the height of a flagpole by its shadow. My father said this would prepare me to calculate gun elevations so I wouldn’t flunk out of artillery OCS. “It’s bad enough being an officer,” he said. “You don’t want to be an enlisted man.”

So I see where North Korea is going with this.

Core meltdown

In Core Meltdown Coming, Education Realist looks at how the Common Core will change math instruction.

Right now middle school math, which should ideally focus almost entirely on proportions, is burdened with introductions to exponents, a little geometry, some simple single variable equations. Algebra I has a whole second semester in which students who can’t tell a positive from negative slope are expected to master quadratics in all their glory and all sorts of word problems.

But Common Core standards add exponential functions to the algebra one course load and compensate by moving systems of equations and exponent laws to eighth grade while much of isolating variables is booted all the way down to sixth grade. Seventh grade alone bears the weight of proportions and ratios, and it’s one of several curricular objectives. So in the three years when, ideally, our teachers should be doing their level best to beat proportional thinking into students’ heads, Common Core expects our students to learn half of what used to be called algebra I, with a slight nod to proportional thinking . . .

“Half” of geometry is being pushed down to middle school too, writes Ed Realist.

In theory, students will arrive in high school ready to learn “complex, real-world mathematical tasks.” But only if they’re able to learn in middle school what many students are not able to learn in high school.

Under Common Core, college and career readiness requires passing Algebra II. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says Common Core will stop us “lying to kids about whether they are ready. Finally, we are telling them the truth, telling their parents the truth, and telling their future employers the truth. Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable to giving our children a true college and career-ready education.”

Honesty doesn’t require new standards and tests, writes Ed Realist.

 We could just say to any kid who can’t score 500 on the SAT math section or 23 on the ACT: Hey, sorry. You aren’t ready for college. Probably won’t ever be. Time to go get a job.

If we don’t have the gumption to do that now, what about Common Core will give us the necessary stones? Can I remind everyone again that these kids will be disproportionately black and Hispanic?

Common Core math was designed to get schools to teach “integrated math” rather than the traditional algebra, geometry and advanced algebra sequence, writes Ed Realist. North Carolina, Utah and West Virginia have made the switch. Integrated math is a great way to hide the fact that many students aren’t prepared for college math, writes Ed Realist.

Algebra II isn’t what it used to be

Passing Algebra II no longer shows mastery of algebra or preparation for college math, concludes a new Brown Center report, The Algebra Imperative.

“Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades,” writes researcher Tom Loveless.

In 1986, less than half of white 17 year-olds and less than a third of blacks and Hispanics had completed Algebra II. That’s up to 79 percent for whites and 69 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But “getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory,” Loveless writes.  “As enrollments boomed, test scores went down.”  

Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17 Year-Olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra (1986-2012)

“More and more unprepared students are being pushed into advanced math in middle school,” Loveless writes. In some cases, eighth graders with second- and third-grade math skills are placed in algebra classes.

A study out of California found that marginal math students who spent one more year before tackling Algebra I were 69% more likely to pass the algebra end of course exam in 9th grade than ninth grade peers who were taking the course for the second time after failing the algebra test in 8th grade.

. . . A study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor found that low achievers who took 8th grade algebra experienced negative long term effects, including lower pass rates in Geometry and Algebra II.

It’s not just algebra either. “There is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told Education Week.

Algebra 1 for all — but it’s not always algebra

Nearly all high graduates in the class of ’05 passed Algebra I — or a course labeled Algebra I, concludes a new federal study. But fewer than one in four studied the challenging algebra topics needed to prepare for college-level math, the National Assessment of Educational Progress study found. Most geometry and “integrated math” also were watered down. From Education Week.

Education watchers hoping to close persistent achievement gaps among students of different racial and ethnic groups long have pushed for all students to take “college-ready” class schedules, including at least four years of high school math, including Algebra I and II, Geometry, and Calculus. Here, at least, the transcript study shows this push has paid off: Graduates in 2005 earned on average 3.8 credits in math, significantly more than the average of 3.2 credits earned by graduates in 1990. Moreover, from 1990 to 2005, black graduates closed a six-percentage-point gap with white graduates in the percentages of students earning at least three math credits, including in algebra and geometry.

Two thirds of Algebra I and Geometry courses covered core content topics. However, the quality of courses varied widely. Only a third of algebra students spent 60 percent of their time on challenging topics such as functions and advanced number theory. Only a fifth of geometry students primarily studied rigorous material.

“We found that there is very little truth-in-labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” said Sean P. “Jack” Buckley, the NCES commissioner, in a statement on the study.

“Honors” meant nothing in algebra:  “Regular” Algebra I classes were more likely to be rigorous than “honors” classes. Geometry honors classes were more likely to be rigorous, but only a third of honors geometry classes contained challenging material, compared with 19 percent of regular geometry classes.

Researchers analyzed the textbooks used; it’s possible teachers added more challenging supplemental material. However, “students who took classes that covered more rigorous topics in algebra and geometry scored significantly higher on the NAEP than those who studied beginner topics, regardless of the course’s title,” Ed Week reports.

It’s no wonder so many high school graduates are placed in remedial math in college, despite passing high school math courses, often with B’s and C’s.

Geometry without proofs

These days, high school geometry is light on proofs, writes Barry Garelick on Education News. Students may know the sum of the measures of angles in a triangle equals 180 degrees, but most can’t prove the proposition.

If done right, the study of geometry offers students a first-rate and very accessible introduction to the nature and techniques of logical argument and proof which is central to the spirit of mathematics itself.  As such, a proof-based geometry course offers to students—for the first time—an idea of what mathematics means to mathematicians, and how it is used.  Also, unlike algebra and pre-calculus, since geometry deals with shapes, it is easier for students to visualize what it is that must be proven, as opposed to more abstract concepts in algebra.

Most geometry textbooks give students “one or two proofs that are not very challenging in a set of problems devoted to the application of theorems rather than the proving of propositions,” he writes. Many problems indicate missing angles or segments as algebraic expressions. It is, to quote Mr. Spock, “illogical.”

Chocolate geometry

As a Los Angeles teacher, Nigel Nisbet turned Toblerone chocolate bars into geometry problems to motivate math-hating students, he said at a TEDx conference in southern California. He asked students: “Why make a chocolate bar in the shape of a triangular prism?”

A vote for new math standards

Common Core math standards are as good as the best state standards and correct common math misperceptions, writes Hung-Hsi Wu, a Berkeley math professor emeritus,  in the cover story in American Educator.

Dr. Wu, who helped write California’s math framework, praises the “mathematical integrity” and logical progression of topics in an interview with Rick Hess.

The standards teach fractions over grades three to five, giving students enough time to learn and internalize the material, says Wu. He also likes the standards approach to learning negative numbers and moving from middle school geometry to algebra and high school geometry. Delaying algebra instruction till high school is not a problem, he argues.

However, he’s not confident teachers will be able to teach the standards.

. . .  we need better teacher preparation and improved professional development in order to stay educationally afloat no matter what the standards may be. If we cannot get better teacher preparation or improved professional development, then we would be better off with a set of standards that is at least mathematically sound.

Wu is wrong, responds Ze’ev Wurman, another veteran of California’s battle for math standards and a fierce defender of eighth-grade algebra.  Wu changed sides because he concluded “American elementary and middle school teachers are incompetent to teach algebra or prepare for it,” Wurman writes.

“School mathematics in this country is a sad joke,”, comments Michael Goldenberg, a math coach. “Knowing procedures and manipulations and calculations is great for standardized tests (which drive just about every contemporary education deform scheme) but say very little about mathematical reasoning, thinking, and or understanding.”