Monday, June 01, 2009

Minnesota negotiates algebra away (UPDATED) 

In economics we have this argument about how much math our students should have when they take the principles, and how much they will need if they decide to become professional economists. Even among our majors, a majority go into jobs where little more than algebra will be required of them. Our experience in Minnesota has been that our students seem less well prepared in mathematics than ten to twenty years ago. In Minnesota we had planned to increase the amount of testing we did of students graduating high school. They would get a test (called the MCA-II) that is mandatory to pass in order to receive a high school diploma. Last year, pass rates on the 11th grade test were quite low, and there was concern that the standards would be watered down.

Buried in the omnibus education bill that was signed into law, those concerns were well founded.

...the Legislature recently decided that students no longer have to pass the 11th-grade math test -- many educators think it's too difficult -- and would have caused a precipitous drop in graduation rates next year.

Juniors already took their graduation math test this spring, and the statewide results for how well students performed come out in the next week or two.

The solution passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, however, could raise a few eyebrows: Students either have to pass the test once, or fail it three times, to graduate.

"They had to do something," said Don Pascoe, director of research, assessment and accountability for the Osseo schools. "They [had] set an extraordinarily challenging target for individuals to meet in order to graduate."

On the other hand, the short-term solution could send long-term mixed messages to kids about math, said Jim Bartholomew, the education policy director at the Minnesota Business Partnership.

"You're saying that we want and expect people to get to this level, to be able to pass this minimum competency test," he said. "Then on the other hand, you're saying 'But it doesn't really count.' "

That's right: three fails equals a pass. As if to help assure that it's too hard! the STrib reproduced four questions on the MCA-II practice test. I'll guess these to be cherry-picked; you can see a SAT math practice question from here; go here for the ACT. The questions the STrib chose are a little harder, but not unreasonable. (I'm having my 9th grader take these questions tonight; I'll report back what I find.)

It's worth noting that the passing standard for this test could have been adjusted if they thought it was a bit more challenging than expected. There are processes for norming a test to measure what you want. But the article makes it clear that you've got some social engineering going on behind these changes:
Last spring, only one-third of juniors were proficient on the state test. And the numbers were significantly worse for many low-income students and students of color.
Emphasis added. The soft bigotry of low expectations, anyone?

[Don] Pascoe [director of research, assessment and accountability for the Osseo schools] said Minnesota's math test is asking for too much. His own research has estimated that a student who just barely is proficient on the state math test would score in the 75th percentile on the ACT.

"One student's life goal was to be a cosmetologist, and the school she wanted to go to required a high school diploma," Pascoe said. "It would have been a real sin for her not to go to cosmetology school because she didn't have really strong math skills."

If his research was borne out, did it not make more sense to re-norm the test rather than pitch it away? And more disturbing: Does your 17-year-old ever get to aspire to something different than being a cosmetologist? Pascoe's reasoning is that this student should never have the tools for college because she made a decision to first try out for a cosmetology certificate.

Kent Pekel of the University of Minnesota says at the end of the article: "When we decide that every kid doesn't need to be educated to that level, we really make the decision for that kid about what they want to do, long before they can make it for themselves."

We've had this discussion before: Algebra is not negotiable. I wrote then:
...we in economics have debates over how much math students should know. And we do negotiate over calculus. But "the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules" is not negotiable. If we wish to have a workforce that can compete globally, we must have workers who can think about values and symbols and perform some analysis on them.
Is there any reason to believe, in the three years since I wrote that, that the need for those workers has gone down?

UPDATE: �So Littlest takes the four questions, knocks off 1, 2 and 4 rather quickly (she was a bit longer on #2) and then is flummoxed by #3. �In the comments on the STrib site some commenters noted this too. �The problem is a typo that made a + 2 at the end of the question a - 2. �You should get the suggested answer then. �Still, as "bleak" notes in comments, that's a maximization problem that is usually solved with the calculus; I'm only guessing that they teach how to solve the particular problem of a quadratic by a formula in Algebra II. �If they don't, a kid without calculus has to resort to trying all four answers and taking the highest one. �Not that this is bad; I'd hope my students could figure that out. �But it is a reach. �Do I have any math teacher readers here who can explain how this shows up on MCA-II?