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21st October
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, October 21, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

Two weeks ago, the Department of Education released the results of the fourth- and eighthgrade math tests administered by the state last May. Needless to say, the announcement was made with much fanfare,highlighting the “progress” being made by the administration. But these results also shed a harsh light on what passes for “standards” in mathematics. Children today are not receiving an adequate background in math. The “dumbing down” of mathematics instruction may even be a national security concern.

We are mistaken if we assume that the advent of cheap pocket calculators has rendered the teaching of math irrelevant. This is one of the dangerous ideas behind the “fuzzy” math instruction that has now been embraced by those running the Department of Education. 
For most of us, who simply want to balance our checkbooks, a sketchy background in math may work just fine. But we are shortchanging those who may seek careers in technical fields where the mastery of advanced math is essential.There is a shortage of Americans qualified to do this work.

This was pointed out a few months back by the Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan. “We do something wrong, which, obviously, people in Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan do far better than we. It’s nothing wrong with our students…teaching in these strange, exotic places seems, for some reason, to be far better than we can do it.”

Ironically, these exotic places, to which we are increasingly outsourcing technical jobs,are doing it better by doing it the way we used to do it here — by teaching the basics using traditional instructional methods.
These fourth- and eighth-grade tests are designed by the state not to measure traditional computational skills, but to test expertise in the new “constructivist” math, referred to a “problem solving.” Don’t be fooled. This is “fuzzy” math, not the real thing.

The inflated scores on these tests reflect not the mastery of traditional mathematical skills but of this lesser “math for dummies” discipline. In California, where this curriculum was first adopted, it has already been abandoned. Test scores in the Golden State sank so low that public outcry forced a return to math as we knew it.

Our own New York State educational establishment learned a valuable lesson from the California experience. Not only did they diminish the curriculum, but they covered their tracks by dumbing-down the tests as well. Artificially high scores make voters feel good, allow politicians to take credit, and the children pay the price. But as the mayor and chancellor are “high-fiving” each other over the 1.4% increase logged by this year’s fourth graders as compared to last year’s students in the same grade, consider this:

According to the State of New York, in the spring of 2003, 66.7% of fourth graders scored at or above grade level in math. Those children moved on to take the fifth-grade test last spring, but only 38.5% of them scored at or above grade level just one year later on the exam administered by the city. This is either an anomaly or, more likely, a reflection of just how unreliable these particular tests are.As currently constituted, these figures mean absolutely nothing.

New York’s vocal anti-testing advocates such as Jane Hirschmann, Ann Cook, and the Department of Education’s own Eric Nadelstern shouldn’t break out the champagne in the belief that I have come over to their side. On the contrary, I believe that the priority should be fixing, not ending testing. Once that is accomplished, we can be even more aggressive in using tests to measure the progress of our children.

To return confidence in testing, we must find an entity other than the State Education Department, the agency that is now writing and administering the state tests, to assume this responsibility. They seem unable do anything right and have unwittingly done more to advance the cause of anti-testing radicals than the activists themselves.

Those who sell textbooks, curricula, or professional development services to our schools cannot also be preparing the tests by which the success of their products is measured. McGraw-Hill is a fine company, but can we be confident when the same company that sells its Everyday Math program to New York City elementary schools also writes the math tests for the state?

Finally, in a season of mayoral control of the schools it only makes sense that standardized testing be administered by others independent of mayoral control.The simple decision of how many correct answers will bring a child to grade level must be insulated from possible political interference. This suggests an autonomous structure, perhaps something similar to the panel established by the federal government to administer its National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP testing.

As we seek to reclaim the term “standards” from the fuzzyheaded educrats who have hijacked it, a good subject to start with is math and, as Mr. Greenspan suggests, there is no shortage of exotic places that we can turn to for guidance.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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