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11th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 11, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Next week, some 30 educators from Shenzhen, China are attending seminars sponsored by the College of Mount St. Vincent “to study the concepts, practices, institutions, policies, and learning strategies embedded … specifically within New York City where test scores are ever improving, and put those concepts into practice back in China,” according to the announcement of the program released by the college.

I would suggest that perhaps we turn things around and have the Chinese educators teach us a thing or two. Clearly we are lagging behind by any fair measure as evidenced by the results of the NAEP and SAT tests. New York is falling behind as we keep lowering our definition of “proficient.”

Our children are not just competing against their peers in Massachusetts and New Jersey. In the global economy, they are in real competition with children from other countries for the jobs of tomorrow. How do education officials in other countries define “proficiency?”

Steve Koss is a New York City public school parent who has spent six years teaching high school math here. He also has spent time in China, and brings back some valuable insights on their education system, and some “hard” evidence that proficiency means a lot more there than it does in the Empire State.

Mr. Koss brought back a workbook of math problems assigned to graduating fifth graders in Suzhou, a city of 1.5 million people 50 miles west of Shanghai, to complete during the summer before they begin sixth grade. These workbooks are typically between 60 and 75 pages long, and their very existence speaks volumes about the expectations the Chinese have for their children.

Here are two of the problems that these incoming sixth graders are expected to be able to solve, translated directly from the workbook:

1. Two gear wheels interact with one another. One gear wheel has 72 teeth, and the other has 28 teeth. If both gears have marked starting points that are together when the wheels begin turning, how many times will each wheel rotate before the two marks meet again?

2. Last year, the ages of both a mother and her son were prime numbers. This year, the product of their ages is 532. What are their ages this year?

Let us now compare this with much easier problems on the “integrated math” Regents test administered to high school students, primarily ninth graders, in New York just last month.

A. Mr. Turner bought x boxes of pencils. Each box holds 25 pencils. He left 3 boxes of pencils at home and took the rest to school. Which expression represents the total number of pencils he took to school?

(1) 22x

(2) 25x-3

(3) 25-3%

(4) 25x-75

B. A school wants to add a coed soccer program. To determine student interest in the program, a survey will be taken. In order to get an unbiased sample, which group should the school survey?

(1) every third student entering the building

(2) every member of the varsity football team

(3) every member in Ms. Zimmer’s drama classes

(4) every student having a second-period French class

Now to be fair, I will concede that there is a difference between problems that can be done at leisure during the summer and those given on a test. But the students taking our Regents exam are four grades ahead of the Chinese children.

Here’s another bit of shocking news: the New York test was marked on a curve, a generous curve at that. A student who gets 30 points (out of 84 points) on the test is awarded a passing grade of 65%. Mr. Koss demonstrates how a student who can correctly answer just 13 of the 30 multiple choice questions, randomly guess on the balance of the short answers, and get not a single point on the longer problem section, the chances are that student will pass the test and be on the road to a high school diploma.

We have been told now for years about the soaring scores on the state tests given in grades between three and eight, particularly in math. This year 81% of students scored at or above grade level or “proficient” on the state math tests. If that is so, why can’t students then pass the Regents exam once they get to ninth grade, without the educrats having to bend the results?

The reason is that New York’s grade three through eight tests don’t measure real “proficiency,” the kind that translates into real world skills. These tests are dumbed down year after year to make the adults look better. That’s why New York students are not keeping pace with Massachusetts or even New Jersey, why SAT scores are dropping and NAEP scores are flat, and why students can’t pass the Integrated Math Regents even with a curve. We are setting them up for failure in competition with foreign students better prepared to compete in the global marketplace.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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