Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Math guru critical of county’s math curriculum

Board of Eduction member also concerned about math lessons

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The question was straightforward: What is 9x8?

Prince George’s school board member Pat Fletcher (Dist. 3) of Landover posed the question to a group of middle school students last spring. Six of about 25 students could answer the question right away, Fletcher said.

Troubled by the response, Fletcher mentioned the incident at a meeting with a longtime University of Maryland math professor and the Prince George’s school board. Both parties were shocked to hear a math coordinator at the meeting say that county students should have a ‘‘sense” of what 9x8 is, according to a document released at the June 26 state school board meeting.

Jerome Dancis, a university math professor for more than 30 years until retiring in 2005, and a critic of the state’s math curriculum, met with county math coordinators and schools officials in April to discuss math improvement.

‘‘A math coordinator said that not all students can memorize the multiplication tables, implying that since some cannot, none should be required to do it,” Dancis wrote in a critical review.

Dancis did not save his critiques for Prince George’s – he criticized the state’s algebra exam, which allows students to use calculators. He said that policy would be a setback for students when they reach college.

‘‘Again, this is a very good strategy if the goal is just to have students pass the [state’s algebra test],” Dancis wrote. ‘‘This is a counterproductive strategy if a goal is to have students avoid remedial [math courses] when they enter college.”

Using calculators on algebra exams, he said, ‘‘allows students’ arithmetic skills to get rusty” and ‘‘covers up students’ lack of fluency in arithmetic.”

Prince George’s saw improvements in Maryland School Assessments (MSA) math scores this year. While middle school math scores remain well below the state average, the overall math proficiency score shot up to 60 percent, up 7 percentage points from 2006 and 12 percent from 2005. In the 2006 High School Assessments (HSA), which Maryland high school seniors will be required to pass by 2009 in order to obtain a diploma, 46.2 percent of county students passed the exam’s algebra portion. Forty-two percent of African-American students passed the algebra HSA exam in Prince George’s. This year’s results are expected to be released in mid-August.

Dancis, a Greenbelt resident for more than 30 years, said his concerns about the county’s math lessons were spurred by his children’s time in the school system. All three of his children graduated from Prince George’s schools.

In his memo released to the state board last month, Dancis said even the upper echelon of Prince George’s math students would struggle when they enter college. Among the county’s most advanced math students, Dancis wrote, 44 percent took remedial math classes when they enrolled in a Maryland college or university in 2004. Dancis found that 53 percent of advanced African-American math students needed remedial college math.

‘‘The county has a problem,” Dancis said in an interview with The Gazette. ‘‘A massive number of their better graduates need to take remedial math in college.”

Fletcher said she expected more students to be able to answer her math question because of her experience with multiplication tables as a student.

‘‘I couldn’t understand that coming from the old school of times tables,” she said. ‘‘It’s something we should improve on.”

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