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When adults take the high school achievement test.
December 5, 2011 9:47 AM   Subscribe

Could you pass your state's standard high school level achievement test today? One school board member, a successful business executive with multiple college degrees, took his state's 10th grade achievement test. He failed.
posted by COD (183 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Measuring schools by their ability to get their students to pass standardized tests is supposed to bring accountability to education but it always reminds me of the typical conservative criticism of liberals: They can't make clear distinctions.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:54 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not surprised. Im getting frustrated by my 5th graders knowledge of biology, history and mathematics far too often. Im tired of answering every question with "I don't know but you know, but you know who would know? Your Uncle Eric," the biochemist.
posted by scunning at 9:55 AM on December 5, 2011


While the whole Trial By Testing thing is really doing a number on primary education, I have to say that without taking a look at the test the guy too, this is some pretty weak op-ed stuff. I think anyone who works in the corporate world can point a finger or ten at a Successful Business Executive With Multiple Degrees who has the basic math (or writing, or science, or whatever) skills of a bag of wet hair.

Plus, every time I hear something along the lines of "why do the kids need to know this if they're never going to use it in the REAL world," I want to punch faces.
posted by griphus at 9:58 AM on December 5, 2011 [20 favorites]


I wonder how well he'd do if he had to re-take any of his college course tests.

I say this, not to snark, but to point out that you're not required (or really expected) to be able to recall everything you've ever learned at any point in your life. You focus on certain areas and learn more about that, and retain a basic understanding of the rest.

Here's the thing: in high school, and in college to a degree, you learn how to learn. You'll be taking tests for a while more if you're going onto college, and in some professional fields, too. You have to learn new topics for the rest of your life, so learning how you learn is very important when you're young.

Plus, kids get a broad base of understanding, not only on the chance that some will actually use the specific lessons learned all those classes, but also they can tackle tougher tasks in the future.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2011 [38 favorites]


Where is the actual test?
posted by empath at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2011 [19 favorites]


Is it possible to think that these tests suck AND think that adults who are successful by "any reasonable measure" should be able to do better than a D on them?

I guess what I mean is that the education system isn't the only system whose flaws are being pointed out by this blog's post.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:00 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'd like to see the math questions that were a) presented to 10th graders but b) so hard a guy with a science degree couldn't solve them.
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on December 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


I went to college about 6 or 7 years after high school.
As a consequence, my SAT scores had "expired" and I had to take the ACT for admission.
I did reasonably well on the English, Reading and Science portions, but not great on the Math (just over 50 or 60%, I believe)* .
This was mainly due to not remembering many of the formulas involved. I had distinct impressions of being taught the material and knowing how to do it at one point, but couldn't recall the exact calculations.
I like to think with a little studying, I could have refreshed my memory enough to get a respectable score.

I am curious how much studying the subject of the article did, and if a quick refresher course would have dramatically changed his score and thus, his perceptions of the test.

* (I ended up in Math 002 as a result, which is another story all by itself...)
posted by madajb at 10:02 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


In the back of my head the germ of a thought grew recently:

We have so many headlines about how schools today are failing and that we are falling behind in XYZ subjects as evidenced by such and such test. I wonder if, for example, you gave today's kids the same tests they took, say in 1970, how they would compare to 1970 kids?

Are we really getting dumber, or are we expecting kids to assimilate more information faster? I don't have an answer, but I suspect subject matter is getting more and more complex.
posted by edgeways at 10:02 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


I can't imagine they were any more complicated than basic trig and algebra II.
posted by empath at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Related: Two YA authors take the SAT essay exam.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


COD: "Could you pass your state's standard high school level achievement test today?"

This is a great question to which I don't know the answer. If only this article contained a link to the test, or even some sample questions.
posted by Plutor at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


I probably couldn't sit down now and pass any of the tests I took in Law School. I certainly couldn't sit down tomorrow and re-pass the Bar exam. The purpose there wasn't to teach you specific legal facts that you'd remember forever, it was to train you in a way of critical thinking and teach you how to learn.

I mean, you can just look up laws. But knowing where to look, what to look for, and how to interpret what you find, that's what takes years of education.
posted by kafziel at 10:03 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


If this guy runs companies, and sits on boards, I'm hard pressed to know how he only got a 62% on the reading portion. I mean, I can understand forgetting math formulas and science data, but forgetting how to read and comprehend and basic vocab?
posted by Kokopuff at 10:04 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'd like to see the math questions that were a) presented to 10th graders but b) so hard a guy with a science degree couldn't solve them.

I would suspect that they are geometry or trig problems that require memorizing rules. If only he'd have remembered soh cah toa!
posted by melissam at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Bah, I was in the graduating class of my HS (a few years ago) that was one of the first in decades where the seniors actually had to pass the test or not get a diploma. People were in an uproar that kids had to pass a test showing 10th grade level competency in some (not all) subjects or not get a diploma.

The logic concerning their rage evaded me then as it does now. Not that tests are necessarily ok or not ok to measure achievement but that the semantics of the situation led people to propose such idiotic things as making the test easier as a means of solving the problem.

What good is a HS graduation exam that is on the 7th grade level??????? (Yes, that was the previous equivalency level of the test before they bumped the difficulty up to 10th grade standard). People actually wonder why we're pumping out substandard graduates vs other nations... The only solution is to fund the actual education of kids instead of making tests harder and expecting them to magically pass. Subsequently, when they don't pass the test is not the time to coddle and insult them by making the test on the kindergarten level. Please god, save us all from administrators and politicians.
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


It could be that a 10th grade test had geometry, which could then require you to remember particular theorems.

We also need to know how this guy got be a CEO or whatever he is. I.e., is his claim that it was by passing tests in the past also BS and he's another GWB.
posted by DU at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2011


So where's the test? That would make this a tad more interesting. Without it it, meh.
posted by Decani at 10:05 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


One school board member, a successful business executive with multiple college degrees, took his state's 10th grade achievement test. He failed.

Hardly surprising, since he presumably hasn't spent the last umpteen years learning how to take this test. I work with some wicked smart people who still throw plastic items into the compost bucket. Smart people with multiple degrees can also be dumb/ignorant/uneducated about things. And they can forget stuff - I'm positive I couldn't do the geometry or algebra problems I managed without much trouble in high school, because I haven't had any practice in those in 25 years.
posted by rtha at 10:06 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Mastering the material in your chosen field and being able to acquire a degree in your chosen field are by no means the same thing. Any idiot can get a college degree in anything through persistence. Successful heads of industry (and politicians) are often mediocre students who get degrees not because they mean to use the material, but because they need to check a box that will allow then entry to the club, and then they get by on personality, instinct, entrepreneurship, creativity and risk-taking. There is so much bullshit glossing-over of complicated things in this article that I think it actually makes things worse while, presumably, it was meant to help get people interested in fixing a problem.
posted by jeffamaphone at 10:08 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'll take this article in the spirit in which it's intended : a reminder to pull out my Newsradio DVDs for that episode where Lisa thinks she's getting dumb, so she decides to re-take the SATs and challenges Dave to do the same.
posted by revmitcz at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


I'm sure the license on the test absolutely forbids any sort of republication of the questions, so I don't blame the author for not having a sample test handy.

When my son was preparing for the SAT last year I was getting the daily SAT review question via email. I did okay on verbal, hanging around 85% over a several month period. But I struggled to stay above 50% on math, even with occasionally cheating by using Google to refresh my memory on a formula. I got through Differential Calculus in college. Once upon a time, I was good at math.
posted by COD at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


If this guy runs companies, and sits on boards, I'm hard pressed to know how he only got a 62% on the reading portion.

I've met at least one CEO where that wouldn't surprise me.
posted by empath at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I once taught an SAT prep class at an all-girls boarding school. The class was nearly evenly split between students who were from neighboring American states and students who were from China. Most of our classes were spent discussing Math for the first half of the class, then Verbal for the second half. During our second class, I noticed that during the Math discussion all of the Chinese girls were playing with their pocket translators and making vocab flashcards. When I tried to politely ask one of them to help answer a question we had just covered, she sighed, put down her translator, looked at the question, then gave me the answer nearly immediately. Impressed, I asked if she felt as confident about that question as all questions on the test. She rolled her eyes and, in a sort half-pitying, half-embarrassed way, explained that the concepts we were covering (exponent rules, prime numbers, factoring, etc.) were things that Chinese kids learn when they're eight. So, I let them play with their translators and didn't ask them any more questions about Math.

I don't think the problem is that we ask kids to do too much math, but the opposite. Kids can handle it, but I'm convinced that many of them are simply not taught basic math principles well. Those that are taught aren't taught early enough. I suspect that in a lot of cases this is because the adults who are doing the teaching don't understand those principles very well in the first place.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:09 AM on December 5, 2011 [27 favorites]


I wonder how well he'd do if he had to re-take any of his college course tests.

For what it's worth, I taught a class last fall, and when I started preparing to teach it again this fall I looked at the final exam I gave last fall and thought "oh shit, I don't remember how to do this".

(The feeling went away. But, you know, it took some work.)
posted by madcaptenor at 10:10 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


The problem is that we're mostly teaching skills that people don't actually use -- neither in their professional nor personal lives -- so, years later, they forget what they were taught.

I've worked in a technical field (software programming, IT, etc.) for 15-20 years and have never once used calculus. Even jr. high school algebra is useless, as 90% of my co-workers don't remember it, mistrust it, and insist on running real-world experiments to verify the results. I spent a TON of time and money to get a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering, but I could have stopped learning at 9th grade level and it would not have affected my professional life one bit. (Except, of course, that hiring employers love to see that degree...) Almost every skill I use was developed on the job.
posted by LordSludge at 10:11 AM on December 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


I could pass them, but I've always been good at standardized tests. I've actually been slightly embarrassed when discussing some of my scores, not wanting to seem like I was boasting.

I like standardized testing. I hate high-stakes testing.

I've tutored kids for the Ohio Graduation Test and the New York Regents. The OGT is a joke. I would have found it incredibly easy, but honestly, the students I was tutoring for it were nearly in tears at times. A great deal of memorization was needed. It didn't help that they were international students and that the history the test asked about was mostly American. But a mind geared for standardized testing is not the same as a mind geared for college. It is not the same as a mind geared for success outside of college.

The Regents are the best of a bad practice, from what I've seen. They actually have essays. They focus on a subject and try to look at a reasonable part of it. They require students to have paid at least a modicum of attention in class. But they also require students to have an idea about how to pass a standardized test.

When I was tutoring, I spent at least one session going over how to take a standardized test. This is a teachable skill that is not taught in most classrooms. During the two years I taught AP courses, we talked a great deal about the design of the test and how to tackle them.

The only standardized test I actually like (as they are not high stakes) are the AP tests. They are hard, they test the material (and one's test taking ability), but they are each scored by two people independently. The scores are compared. If they do not match, the test goes back in to be further looked at by more people. Multiple judgments are required on essays and free-answer problems. Of course, they are $85 each.

tl;dr: test taking is an ability, and high stakes testing is ridiculous. We should teach a course on taking tests.
posted by Hactar at 10:11 AM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


"I'm hard pressed to know how he only got a 62% on the reading portion. I mean, I can understand forgetting math formulas and science data, but forgetting how to read and comprehend and basic vocab?"

Part of that is probably bull and dude needs to learn to game a test, but on my state's exam some of the reading comprehension questions are unclear, such that multiple answers could be correct. And some of them require you to PUT THE WRONG ANSWER even if you know the right one because the wrong answer is the one in the text excerpt. But nowhere on the test does it say, "Using ONLY the information in this excerpt ..."

Also some of the reading comprehension questions use words such as "theme" and "motif" and so forth very muddily ... and act as if those terms are clear-cut and scientific and have one right answer always.

I mean, basically, they're bad tests. They're poorly written, they don't have any pedagogy underlying them (just a list of "things 10th graders should know" with no cohering ideas or, in most cases, underlying curricula), and they reduce out complexity and accurate assessment for ease and speed of scoring.

(By contrast, AP tests are generally pretty good tests. But they're far more expensive to produce and score and are attached to an entire curriculum and well-crafted to respond to that curriculum. AP has also been pretty responsive to teacher concerns, like that biology and chemistry had become very "vomit up facts" and students weren't learning underlying concepts, so the curriculum and test are being overhauled in concert.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:12 AM on December 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


You know, I probably couldn't pass my high school's 10th Grade achievement test. This is why:

When I was in 10th grade, I was a generalist. I was learning Math, Science, English, Theater, Civics, History, Music, etc. I was learning a bit of everything - a liberal arts education.

In the last seventeen years, I've become a specialist. I went to school for a specialized career. I have quite a bit of variety in my job, but I haven't had to think one iota about Chemistry or Spanish in sixteen years. I left what little knowledge I had about hunter-gatherer societies in Mr. Turnquist's History class in 1995. Even the math has slipped away: I can balance my library's books and I can figure out percentages and averages, but geometry? Pfft. Gone with the wind. Sorry, Mr. Temte. It turns out the most lasting memory I have of your class was getting to spend a whole semester sitting next to Brian, the cute guy who was into Pink Floyd.

Not being able to go into a test that evaluates my abilities as a 10th-grade generalist doesn't make me an idiot, and that doesn't make today's kids smarter than me. People forget things that they don't use on a regular basis. I've forgotten a lot from high school that I don't use regularly. I'm sure that members of the school board, teachers that teach a specific subject, and parents who don't use trigonometry regularly are the same way.
posted by Elly Vortex at 10:13 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


People actually wonder why we're pumping out substandard graduates vs other nations.

Why does it matter, as long as they know who Kim Kardashian is and they can vote themselves a bigger share of other people's productive output?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:13 AM on December 5, 2011


I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

Too bad the system that determines who gets to do this guy's job isn't anything even vaguely resembling a meritocracy. Standardized testing is by no means the best way to determine a student's overall academic ability, but it's at least an objective measure of competence on some level. I would be interested to see how a 10th grader who got a perfect score on the achievement test would fair at doing his job.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:13 AM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]



When I was a teacher in Florida I had to teach kids the FCAT. I am an awesome test taker, I am a puzzle-solver and a pattern-finder and I've never had any problems passing any test for anything. I tested out of Economics, Philosophy in college, no sweat.

FCAT, threw me for a loop and that was in my own subject matter of English. The reading comprehension questions looked like they were mismatched with the passages we were asking the kids to read. When I approached our district reading coordinator I asked her, “I’m having problems with this material and I have a Master’s degree, what’s the methodology for this test? “ Her response, ”Oh, you don’t need to know the methodology, you just need to teach the material.”

Even after 5 weeks of 8 hour days of drilling the damn FCAT, is it any wonder our school was graded D? Frankly, I was happy with the D, I don’t think I could have received anything better if I took the tests for the kids myself.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:13 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.
I don't think this will surprise anyone who is familiar with the actual state of written business communications today, which is a sad, sad thing.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:14 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to just sit here and assert that, yes, yes I could.

With no link to the appropriate test for California, no one can prove me wrong.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:15 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Regents are the best of a bad practice, from what I've seen. They actually have essays. They focus on a subject and try to look at a reasonable part of it. They require students to have paid at least a modicum of attention in class. But they also require students to have an idea about how to pass a standardized test.

I took at least a dozen Regents exams between Junior High and High School and I remember the tail-end -- maybe the last two weeks or so -- of every Regents class was just practice test after practice test after practice test out of those red Barrons' books.
posted by griphus at 10:16 AM on December 5, 2011


And some of them require you to PUT THE WRONG ANSWER even if you know the right one because the wrong answer is the one in the text excerpt. But nowhere on the test does it say, "Using ONLY the information in this excerpt ..."

My 5th grade daughter has a HUGE problem with this concept in the standardized tests they (seemingly constantly) make her take at school. She is starting to get the concept of "test-taking" as a distinct mode of thought from "thinking intelligently" but it has been quite a struggle for her.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:16 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Based on the references to New York (e.g. principals on Long Island revolting against test-based assessments for educators), I assume it was the New York standardized tests. This page has sample tests for high school-level mathematics in New York.

With no link to the appropriate test for California, no one can prove me wrong.

Here you go.
posted by jedicus at 10:17 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


I work with some wicked smart people who still throw plastic items into the compost bucket.

The problem is that it is hard to learn what's supposed to go where! My solution to this problem is to throw things into the wrong receptacle in front of my housemate who knows where things go, who then rolls her eyes and explains thing to me like I'm stupid.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:18 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plutor, most states post sample questions on their Dept. of Ed websites. Don't expect those questions to reflect what is on the test this year. Those questions were probably developed a decade ago. State assessments are ever evolving based upon item data. States pay a lot of money for each question (I may call them items occasionally, but what I mean is "question". Item is a term used in education and assessment). Each question gos through a development process that can take a year and a half. Then each question is field tested to determine whether it is valid (that is, tests what it purports to test and does no skew against any particular population). Once an item has been selected, that item may sit in a bank of items until it is chosen to be put on a test. It may wait a few years. Once it has been run on a test, it is held to be used on a later test (usually the next year) in order to equate test difficulty across the years. After that use, it may sit in a bank for a few more years in case they need to do the same again.
Eventually, items will matriculate out of the secured system and may be chosen as a sample item on the state's website. By then it is usually very old and no longer reflects the state's idea of what the best item would look like. Unfortunately, with the cost of items being so high, no state wants to develop a whole bunch of extra items every year to post on the internet.

(yeah, I have way too much knowledge on these types of assessments.)
posted by Seamus at 10:20 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


they can vote themselves a bigger share of other people's productive output

Unfortunately, they end up not educated enough not to vote themselves a smaller share of their own output. They lack the understanding of their own interests.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:20 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The problem with these tests is that a) they're simple multiple choice and b) the schools are very much teaching to the tests. They don't test what you know or can do, they test whether or not you can give them the answer they want. So while this isn't exactly substantial, it isn't exactly surprising either.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:21 AM on December 5, 2011


With no link to the appropriate test for California, no one can prove me wrong.

Here you go.


Which one do I take? English, math,science, one of each?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2011


I'm sure the license on the test absolutely forbids any sort of republication of the questions

Yep. ETS (the Educational Testing Service) and the other people who provide standardized test that are part of No Child Left Behind [which they call Nickelby and I hate them for it] are fiercely protective of their proprietary stuff. I've been in a situation where I both taught test prep and worked as a test scorer for ETS.The very weird thing about the whole process, besides how rich these people are getting and how much they badly want the tests, including the essays, to be robot-scoreable so that they can get richer, is how much the design of the tests and the answers is geared towards reproduceability of both the testing [i.e. kids everywhere will take the tests and score along a bell curve] and the scoring [i.e. scorers everywhere will score an essay along the same 4 or 6 point scale] and all the rubrics and scoring methodology supports this.

I can't speak to the content of these tests because I only scored them and didn't take them--though analysis supports that the only correlation between these scores and ANYTHING (grades, performance, intelligence, shoe size) is household income-- but I found the whole thing terribly depressing. I quit working for ETS when they asked us all to take basically a 40% pay cut for what was already a pretty terrible job.
posted by jessamyn at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


He's a successful business executive with multiple college degrees, a condo in the Caribbean and loads of frequent flyer miles.

"Look kid I'm not going to take your little test. I've already got more frequent flyer miles than I know what to do with."

She's your average 10th grader.

"I just want to get to the 11th grade."

Find out what happens when they take the test of their lives in Test Takers. You'll laugh, you'll love, and you might just learn something, in the film Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called "incomplete" and Kurt Dillners of Fox 12 Buffalo raved "where's the test, or at least some sample questions?" In theaters Christmas Day.
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:22 AM on December 5, 2011 [13 favorites]


From the article, emphasis mine:
“The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly.
And there's his problem: you aren't supposed to know the answers to math problems; you're supposed to work them out. In a multiple-choice test with a time limit, that might mean that you do a rough quick-and-dirty estimate of the solution, match it to the closest available answer, and move on to the next question... but you aren't intended to know it off the top of your head.

And the same thing is often true of the verbal section: even if you don't know the answers, they're often easy to figure out from context or by process of elimination.

(Now, maybe by "I knew the answers to none of them," he meant "I didn't know how to calculate the answers." Maybe by "[I] managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly," he meant "I was able to roughly calculate ten of the 60." But that's not what he said.)

I'm certainly not arguing in favor of mandatory standardized testing as it's currently being used in our schools, but that quote suggests a big misunderstanding of how education works. It isn't something you acquire and keep in your pocket forever; it's a set of problem-solving skills that you hone and practice.
posted by Elsa at 10:23 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, they end up not educated enough not to vote themselves a smaller share of their own output. They lack the understanding of their own interests.

How about if they're not educated enough to have a job, which seems to be an emerging problem?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:25 AM on December 5, 2011


And if he managed to guess 10 out of the 60 correctly, then assuming these are the usual 4-choice or 5-choice multiple-choice items, he did worse than he would have by guessing. Not that he knows that.
posted by madcaptenor at 10:27 AM on December 5, 2011 [13 favorites]


How about if they're not educated enough to have a job, which seems to be an emerging problem?

No more than the constant dinosaur attacks and magic carpet failures that plague this mythical land you're describing.
posted by griphus at 10:28 AM on December 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


I would be interested to see how a 10th grader who got a perfect score on the achievement test would fair at doing his job.

Taking him at is word and assuming he's working with the complex (and not merely complicated) data, I'm pretty sure your average tenth grader would die like a dog. Complex systems are the anathema of pretty much our entire education system, particularly standardized tests.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:29 AM on December 5, 2011


One a sample size of 1, guessing about 16% correctly with 4 or 5 choices is probably not a statistically relevant error. It's bad luck. He could have guessed a little better than expected and felt good about himself.
posted by COD at 10:31 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think it's really interesting how many people in this thread are blaming the test. There's a pretty good chance that the reason this guy failed has something to do with his knowledge (or lack thereof).

I can certainly understand forgetting how to do math, but most intelligent adults are able to sit in front of a problem for a minute or two and some of it comes back. As for reading, well, you shouldn't forget how to do that. It's true that a few questions on each test are maddeningly ambigious, but you should still be able to get a 70% no problem.
posted by mai at 10:31 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Regents are the best of a bad practice, from what I've seen.

Man, if I'd realized how little other states care about my "Advanced Regents" diploma, I totally would have finished school a week earlier rather than sticking around for all those tests!

(On the other hand, I met my first girlfriend during an exam break, so I guess it wasn't all wasted time...)
posted by madajb at 10:32 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Are we really getting dumber, or are we expecting kids to assimilate more information faster? I don't have an answer, but I suspect subject matter is getting more and more complex.

Speaking as a first-grade teacher, we absolutely are expecting kids to learn things earlier. First grade used to be the grade in which kids started to learn to read... they came in knowing their letters and that's about it. Now we expect them to know all their sounds as well. which is fine for some, but many aren't at all ready for it developmentally.

Kindergarten used to be all socialization and learning how to be at school. Now that's preschool, so the ones who don't go to preschool don't learn it. Kinder is lots of academics.

Somehow the US is moving in the opposite direction from many of the countries that are supposedly overtaking us... in math, for example, many countries focus on fact families and the concept that numbers are made of smaller parts, and that's it for an entire year. By the next year they have a solid grasp of numbers.

Here in the US, we teach number concepts, plus money, time, shapes, tens and ones, patterns, data and graphs... sometimes one concept in the space of a week. Then they expand on each concept every year, but the kids never really master any of them.
posted by Huck500 at 10:33 AM on December 5, 2011 [15 favorites]


Man, if I'd realized how little other states care about my "Advanced Regents" diploma...

Yeah, that was some harsh cognitive dissonance considering how much emphasis they put on the damn thing. My high school added insult to injury by having some sort of in-house special diploma that was seriously emphasized but double-extra-not-cared-about by anyone at all, ever.
posted by griphus at 10:36 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Although back in the 60s, my high school would straight-up pay students who got a Regents diploma. The guy who ran the chem lab, who I hung out with a lot, said he used his to buy a guitar.)
posted by griphus at 10:37 AM on December 5, 2011


> I would suspect that they are geometry or trig problems that require memorizing rules. If only he'd have remembered soh cah toa!

It took me a moment to realize what this meant, but I remember! I didn't memorize it like that, but I forced myself to memorize it. (25 years ago...)

SOH = sine is opposite over hypotenuse

CAH = cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse

TOA = tangent is opposite over adjacent
posted by no relation at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2011


I decided to go to grad school 20 years after graduating from college. The GRE didn't seem to be very different from the SAT (except for the newfangled "you take it on a computer" part.

I was horrified at my first practice test. The score, which was on the same scale as my 20+ year-old SATs, was hundreds of points lower than I expected. I buckled down, read some GRE books that explained the problem types and the rules and the scoring and techniques, and got it back to where I wanted it. That was my strategy in 1985, and it worked again.

If he'd taken a dozen practice tests and looked up the formulae and knew how to take this test, I suspect he'd've done better.

This is the main thing that Keeps test-taking companies in business.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:39 AM on December 5, 2011


Does anybody (other than maybe the govt. if you are applying for a job) care about any high school diploma? My son has never been to school and will not have anything resembling a high school diploma. Colleges don't care. Once you've got some college credit your high school diploma becomes totally meaningless as a signaling device about your competency.

Maybe it mattered back when a high school degree was as far as most people meant. But today, I wonder why we bother. Go to high school until you ready to go to college, or to do something else. Graduating is a meaningless achievement.
posted by COD at 10:42 AM on December 5, 2011


Public education is a buffet of knowledge so that kids can zero in on a subject they like and become specialists (in theory). People then forget about what they learned in topics they don't need and focus on being good at their jobs.

Add in the fact that standards keep adding new technology and knowledge to the evolving sciences (I guarantee you my mom did not learn about genetic engineering in high school), and I'm not surprised adults don't get things that have changed outside their fields. And that's good for the kids. The world keeps changing, so education should try to keep up.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:43 AM on December 5, 2011


I took the first 20 questions on the New York Algebra test and got 19 correct. The one I got wrong was about a box-and-whisker plot, which I'll confess to having never learned about. I glanced over the remainder and felt I would have no trouble doing similarly well on the rest of the questions.

My job is not one that involves doing significant math or working with figures on a regular basis. The last time I did significant math by hand was 5 years ago.

Of course it's meaningless that the business person and his colleagues couldn't answer the questions or didn't use the knowledge in their jobs. That's not the point of the test. The point of the test is to see if you learned the material you've just been taught. It would be nice if students were taught useful material, but that's unrelated to whether the test is accurately determining whether students are learning the material. So his failure to do well on the test despite his accomplishments in life says very little about whether the test is a good one, although it might say something about whether the curriculum is good.

Regarding the theory that the business person did poorly because he had forgotten various formulas and whatnot: the test takers are provided with a reference sheet that includes the three primary trigonometric ratios (i.e. "soh cah toa"), the area of a trapezoid, the volume of a cylinder, the surface area of a rectangular prism and a cylinder, and the formula for calculating the slope of a line from two points on the line.
posted by jedicus at 10:44 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Does anybody (other than maybe the govt. if you are applying for a job) care about any high school diploma?

When I applied for the job that I held longest (3+ years) between dropping out of college and going back and graduating, I definitely would not have been hired without a high school diploma. From the people I know who went back for GEDs, I hear the same story.
posted by griphus at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2011


Maybe it mattered back when a high school degree was as far as most people meant. But today, I wonder why we bother. Go to high school until you ready to go to college, or to do something else. Graduating is a meaningless achievement.

Unless you're not going to college, in which case it is a big deal. Lots of people go to college, but lots of people don't, and for that second group having a high school diploma matters a lot.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:49 AM on December 5, 2011


Does anybody (other than maybe the govt. if you are applying for a job) care about any high school diploma?

I worked from the US government and they never wanted to see my high school diploma. I'm 30, and have worked at various jobs since I was 16. I have never been asked for a high school diploma by anyone ever. This includes working for a four-person startup company, a billion dollar publicly traded tech company, and the United States Geological Survey.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:50 AM on December 5, 2011


Also, "Some College" is only 5% over the halfway point, and less than 40% have an AA/BA degree if you go by these stats.
posted by griphus at 10:50 AM on December 5, 2011


Yeah, diplomas still have a place. Even though the economy seems to be shifting to the point where you need a college degree of some sort to get a decent white collar job, I guarantee in this economy a person with a diploma will be leaps and bounds ahead of someone with no diploma or GED in the job market.

If you can't afford or aren't cut out for college, it's a bad idea not to graduate high school if you are able.

And I think, all things being equal, a selective college (most affordable colleges in my area are kinda selective) will prefer a student with a diploma over a student with no diploma, all things being equal. I didn't look into it, because I graduated, but I think some schools wouldn't even consider people with no GED or diploma of some sort.
posted by mccarty.tim at 10:52 AM on December 5, 2011


I would suspect that they are geometry or trig problems that require memorizing rules. If only he'd have remembered soh cah toa!

Probably true, but more to the point: WHEN have you EVER used sines, cosines, tangents, arctangents, logarithms, natural logs, imaginary values, basic calculus, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah in your profession?? Unless you work in a very, very technical field, the answer is either "never" or "almost never". So why the hell are we spending so much time and money teaching them??

If I were king, things would be very different. (Probably not better, just different.)

And, holy shit, I just learned something cool.
posted by LordSludge at 10:53 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Probably true, but more to the point: WHEN have you EVER used sines, cosines, tangents, arctangents, logarithms, natural logs, imaginary values, basic calculus, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah in your profession??

I use most of these at least once in a while and some more often than that (logarithms, integral calculus). I am a software engineer. We spend so much time and effort teaching these things so that our kids can grow up to be scientists and engineers.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:58 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Probably true, but more to the point: WHEN have you EVER used sines, cosines, tangents, arctangents, logarithms, natural logs, imaginary values, basic calculus, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah in your profession?? Unless you work in a very, very technical field, the answer is either "never" or "almost never". So why the hell are we spending so much time and money teaching them??

I work in a technical field and I never use them. I've been taking a grad-level stats class and I've had to reteach myself some basic concepts. What is important for things like what I do is basic logic and problem-solving skills. With these you can learn anything on the fly.
posted by melissam at 11:01 AM on December 5, 2011


It is nice that they are critical of high-stakes testing. But no mention of content?

In math, why is calculus the gold standard of achievement when very few people actually use it in their adult life? Yet, people have enormous difficulty figuring out a 15% tip on a check. People have difficulty balancing their check book. Once at a public hearing I had to tell a city council member that a reduction of 10% from a piece of the budget that was 30% of the total budget did not mean that piece was now 20%. People do not know real, useful math.

In high school social studies in New York you spend 3 years learning history. But only half a year on economics and half on government. Which do you think has more importance to everyday life? Knowing basic economic principles and how your government works or knowing two sentences worth of the history of Tongo?

Science. Have you noticed just how divorced science curriculum is from math? Does that make any sense? You can teach two subjects at once but instead half teach one.

English. I sure read Ethan Frome. But from all the Freshman college papers I have edited I don't think most students have any idea what punctuation marks actually do other than garnish a paragraph.

And those are the big four. I really don't care if we have imperfect testing because the content is nearly useless.
posted by munchingzombie at 11:04 AM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


So why the hell are we spending so much time and money teaching them??

No kidding around, I think those functions and the relationships between them are the most beautiful thing in mathematics, and they open up a whole world of wonder and magic when you start studying physics. I wish they started teaching them earlier.

They're the foundation of almost every single scientific law that's ever been discovered, and you can't understand the fundamental laws of the universe without understanding them and knowing how to use them.
posted by empath at 11:05 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Geometry is used in basic video game programming and robotics clubs. Two great gateway drugs for getting nerdy kids into science and engineering.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:07 AM on December 5, 2011


Coursework has long been broken in the US - algebra and geometry needs to start in elementary and middle school, and in high school the focus needs to be on finance - how to run a household, how to operate a small business, how to manage investments, how to get a mortgage, and whether to get a mortgage, how not to be ruined by scams and bubbles.

By the time a kid graduates HS, they should be able to operate as a financially responsible adult - having to figure this stuff out on your own is difficult, and lots of people get into trouble up to their throats winging it.

Yeah, advanced math is cool and all, learning for learning's sake, exercise the mind, yadda yadda... but the function of a public education is to benefit society as much as it benefits the students. Graduating kids who can manage the books on a small business and know better than rack up CC debt because they had to work out interest and cash flow calculations to graduate is more beneficial to both than knowing how to work out integrals.

Instead, advanced math should be optional for the kids who are interested in science or engineering, the same way Shop class was optional for the kids interested in auto mechanics.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:10 AM on December 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


Are the academics still optional for varsity athletes?
posted by ceribus peribus at 11:13 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Every time I read about education disasters in this country, I like to remember Kevin Drum's reality check.
posted by wittgenstein at 11:13 AM on December 5, 2011


>With no link to the appropriate test for California, no one can prove me wrong.

>Here you go.

>Which one do I take? English, math,science, one of each?

How about Algebra I...

Question 1:
Is the equation 3(2 x − 4) = −18 equivalent to 6x−12 =−18?
A Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Associative Property of Multiplication.
B Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Commutative Property of Multiplication.
C Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition.
D No, the equations are not equivalent.

Question 15:
The cost to rent a construction crane is $750 per day plus $250 per hour of use. What is the maximum number of hours the crane can be used each day if the rental cost is not to exceed $2500 per day?

A 2.5 B 3.7 C 7.0 D 13.0
posted by rjc3000 at 11:16 AM on December 5, 2011


Kinder is lots of academics.

Oh, how I wish this was true. My son is five. He can read. Sunday morning he asked me to do math workbooks with him for an hour (which we did). He's interested in physics, and space.

Kindergarten is torture for him. The engaged, excited kid from preschool is gone. In his place is a kid who dreads every school day, because it's boring, because he learns almost nothing (he did recently learn ABAB patterns, which I hadn't thought to cover), and he's constantly being told to sit and be quiet. His teacher puts so much emphasis on "learning to function in school" that she didn't realize he could actually read until I told her three weeks into the school year. Then she didn't believe me.

I would love it if my son were able to actually do math in Kindergarten. Or, actually, any academic work. This is a make or break time for him - he'll either learn to love school, or dread it. Unfortunately, the lack of any challenging material for him, and the emphasis on the things he doesn't do well (sit quietly, not lose his hat) are pretty much breaking him.
posted by anastasiav at 11:17 AM on December 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


What is important for things like what I do is basic logic and problem-solving skills. With these you can learn anything on the fly.

Agreed; same here. So if you're wanting to teach problem-solving skills, not trigonometry/calculus/etc per se, might there be a more direct way to teach it? Of course my experience is not universal, but most of what I use in my professional life comes as a side-effect of what I was taught, not *explicitly* taught. That seems rather inefficient.
posted by LordSludge at 11:19 AM on December 5, 2011


Is the equation 3(2 x − 4) = −18 equivalent to 6x−12 =−18?
A Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Associative Property of Multiplication.
B Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Commutative Property of Multiplication.
C Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition.
D No, the equations are not equivalent.


That question seems to be testing terminology, not math. Is this a common "Math" question on state tests?
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:20 AM on December 5, 2011


A Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Associative Property of Multiplication.
B Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Commutative Property of Multiplication.
C Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition.
D No, the equations are not equivalent.


I am fairly sure commutative is A*B = B*A, and it looks like you're distributing there plus I see addition, so I guess C. I don't remember what associative is.

(A quick googling says that associative is A(BC)=(AB)C.)

There are good questions to test if people understand the concept of these properties, but this doesn't seem like it.

I am even more curious about the questions on the English test.
posted by jeather at 11:24 AM on December 5, 2011


I only know what commutation is because of reading about quantum mechanics. I have no idea what the associative and distributive properties are, but I know the rules. That's an English question, not a math question. Why not just ask if they're equivalent?
posted by empath at 11:30 AM on December 5, 2011


LordSludge: I knew that because I took high school Spanish and learned about subjunctive tenses. I can't even speak three words of Spanish, but the understanding of English grammar stuck with me. Which proves something.
posted by miyabo at 11:34 AM on December 5, 2011


Is the equation 3(2 x − 4) = −18 equivalent to 6x−12 =−18?
A Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Associative Property of Multiplication.
B Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Commutative Property of Multiplication.
C Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition.
D No, the equations are not equivalent.

That question seems to be testing terminology, not math. Is this a common "Math" question on state tests?


Properties of multiplication/addition (as I have just explained to my daughter in 7th grade) are important in that they give you the reason WHY you can do something. As in the above equation given, if you didn't know about the Distributive Property of Multiplication (they should leave out the "over Addition"), you wouldn't know that you can write that as 3*2x - 3*4. We all know it, but it's the rule you "subconsciously" know.
posted by kuanes at 11:35 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates: "That question seems to be testing terminology, not math"

Actually, since they're including the yes/no part of the answer, it's testing both.

empath: " Why not just ask if they're equivalent?"

I would argue that knowing what rules are called, in the larger sense, is an important skill. Adult conversations require a shared vocabulary, and being unwilling or unable to remember what the name of the thing you're doing is is a pretty good predictive indicator of success.
posted by Plutor at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2011


If this guy runs companies, and sits on boards, I'm hard pressed to know how he only got a 62% on the reading portion.

The executives I've worked with always gravitate towards talking over writing. Reading and writing are what assistants are for. Complicated things have an "executive summary" for a reason, and it has as much to do with the average executive's reading comprehension level as their lack of time.

Leadership in a corporate world is about knowing people, not things. This guy may be a total idiot on almost every school subject, but it's OK because his job lets him get away with that. That doesn't mean he is offering a valid critique of what non-CEO-bound students should be learning.
posted by chundo at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2011


The posted equation question is kind of a bullshit question, isn't it? They are equations. They both have -18 on one side. By definition, they either have a mistake or are equivalent by the property of that's what equation means.

I am willing to be shamed for being wrong, mathpersons.
posted by jsturgill at 11:37 AM on December 5, 2011


Question 1:
Is the equation 3(2 x − 4) = −18 equivalent to 6x−12 =−18?
A Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Associative Property of Multiplication.
B Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Commutative Property of Multiplication.
C Yes, the equations are equivalent by the Distributive Property of Multiplication over Addition.
D No, the equations are not equivalent.

Question 15:
The cost to rent a construction crane is $750 per day plus $250 per hour of use. What is the maximum number of hours the crane can be used each day if the rental cost is not to exceed $2500 per day?

A 2.5 B 3.7 C 7.0 D 13.0


Well, I put C for both of them, but I had to think about the terminology one a bit.

I would have to agree that being able to solve the problem is more interesting than being able to remember the names of the rules you use to solve the problem. I think this is akin to knowing the answer to, "When is it legal to make a right turn at a red light?" versus knowing "What section of the vehicle code contains the rules about when you can make a right turn on a red light?" Obviously other people (mostly people who knew the terminology without doing a process of elimination in their head) will think that the terminology is more important.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:40 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


LordSludge: "I've worked in a technical field (software programming, IT, etc.) for 15-20 years and have never once used calculus."
melissam: "logarithms, natural logs, imaginary values, basic calculus"

My dad was a few courses short of a dual degree in CS and Accounting. He worked for the state as a programmer for a few years before becoming a business analyst in the corporate world. As such he used a lot of this stuff all the time.

But even within IT, I think this stuff could be made useful. Imagine a monitoring system that calculated rates of change instead of static thresholds for alerts. Or consider that the basic entropy calculation one might measure password strength with uses binary logarithms. Hell, we measure the size of data in exponents. The fact that our IT professionals don't regularly apply math to the systems they design strikes me as part of their problem.

Basically, once you get past the "making it work" stage, these are tools to help you optimize systems.
posted by pwnguin at 11:47 AM on December 5, 2011


"I'm a mighty important fella," he wrote in an email. "The villagers of Santo Domingo cower before my rickshaw as it flies down the avenues towards my 'paid-for condo.' Legend has it I'm ten foot tall if I'm an inch and I shoot fireballs out of my eyes. And I'm ABD in seventeen different disciplines. (Excluding Scandinavian Studies, for which I wrote the motherfucking textbook.)"
posted by ford and the prefects at 11:48 AM on December 5, 2011


Adult conversations require a shared vocabulary, and being unwilling or unable to remember what the name of the thing you're doing is is a pretty good predictive indicator of success.

I think it's a case of mistaking the map for the territory.
posted by empath at 11:48 AM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've worked in a technical field (software programming, IT, etc.) for 15-20 years and have never once used calculus.

I don't do super-technical work, but I have been a web designer/developer for 10+ years, and I've forgotten all the calculus I knew. (I do remember the concept of a problem from Calc II in college, something about figuring out the volume of a partially filled underground storage container; couldn't tell you anything about how to solve it. Presumably, if that were a field I'd gone into, more of that sort of thing would be useful.)

Instead, I desperately wish I'd either finished up the intro to computers class (MS Works on Mac Plus FTW!) I dropped because the second semester conflicted with AP Calculus or that I'd taken Statistics in college rather than Calculus II. Or even better: both. Mr epersonae had to take Stats when he went back to school, and in reading over his shoulder, I discovered that statistics is amazing and useful! Everyone should learn it!

I'm tempted to try out some of those tests; I used to be a whiz at standardized testing. But after watching my sis struggle with her learning disability and her total inability to deal with standardized tests, I'm deeply skeptical of their usefulness.
posted by epersonae at 11:50 AM on December 5, 2011


To Arsenio's point, my 3rd grade son is doing algebra, primes, and other math stuff, and will be doing his first university interscholastic league math.competition tomorrow. There is only one other kid in his grade that does that level of math. The rest of the kids are on the 3rd week of learning how to round numbers.

But, I've talked to other kids, and they CAN do the math, they just aren't being taught the math, because its not on the test.

Just like they aren't being taught how to diagram a sentence, or grammatical structure...because it isn't on the test. Matrices for knowledge aquisition are important, but not so important that education is tossed in favor of rote memorization.
posted by dejah420 at 11:51 AM on December 5, 2011


I guess knowing the term that references a(b+c)=ab+ac seems really pointless. I knew and still know the rule, but had forgotten (and probably will forget again) the name. But saying "distribution!" doesn't explain WHY it is true.
posted by jeather at 11:51 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Instead, I desperately wish I'd either finished up the intro to computers class (MS Works on Mac Plus FTW!) I dropped because the second semester conflicted with AP Calculus or that I'd taken Statistics in college rather than Calculus II.....

Mr epersonae had to take Stats when he went back to school, and in reading over his shoulder, I discovered that statistics is amazing and useful!


You need calculus for statistics.
posted by empath at 11:53 AM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I looked through the links that Jedicus posted. The English Grade 11 [pdf] is very strange. There are a couple of ambiguous questions in there. I've taken the GRE, and it is the very same kind of nonsense. Instead of asking about complex ideas or principles, the goal seems to be to twist simple things to confuse the reader. You could argue that this tests if you have a thorough knowledge of the material, but I think it's just distorting education into a mold that enables computers to grade the answer.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 11:53 AM on December 5, 2011


I guess knowing the term that references a(b+c)=ab+ac seems really pointless. I knew and still know the rule, but had forgotten (and probably will forget again) the name. But saying "distribution!" doesn't explain WHY it is true.

Yeah, and it's the kind of trivial knowledge that we force kids to memorize that makes them hate math.
posted by empath at 11:54 AM on December 5, 2011


I use log, natural log, calculus, etc. in my job as a biologist, but my trusty computer does most of the math for me. My time would probably have been better spent learning how to use data analysis software than actually learning the math.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 11:55 AM on December 5, 2011


oops, "mould <- mold"
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 11:57 AM on December 5, 2011


You need calculus for statistics.

That was not my/his experience, as far as I can remember. (It's been a few years.) Although maybe the textbook included calculus and just didn't call it that. Also, this was an intro course.
posted by epersonae at 12:01 PM on December 5, 2011


The snark in me wants to point out the meme on facebook question that's something like 1+1+1+1+1*0= ? where folks are all arguing passionately (and usually incorrectly) about what the real answer is.

Sure, you might not know the name of the rule, but understanding it matters.

As for geometry, SOHCATOA is easy. The congruence angles/"are these triangles the same" theorems, rays/segments/tangent lines/etc on circles -- that stuff has long since fell out of my head, and seems to always be a big part of those tests.
posted by k5.user at 12:01 PM on December 5, 2011


You need calculus for statistics.

Au contraire - like many people, I teach an introductory level stats class every semester with only college algebra as a pre-req. You need calculus to understand basic statistics on a deep level, but you certainly don't need it to understand what a p-value means, or what a linear model is.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:02 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


1+1+1+1+1*0= ?

It's '4', right?
posted by griphus at 12:02 PM on December 5, 2011


Question 1's not too bad. When doing a formal proof these days, you're not supposed to tear along writing one equivalent statement under another under another, combining them in your head and doing five steps at a time. Instead, you're supposed to apply only one mathematical property/theorem/operation per line, and identify which one, like so:
3(2 x − 4) = -18
   6x - 12 = -18  , by Distribution
        6x = -6   , by adding 12 to both sides
         x = -1   , by dividing each side by 6
It helps to prevent students from just peeking at their neighbour and writing "x=-1" without showing their work. Plus, it's supposed to help them understand what's going on.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:04 PM on December 5, 2011


Yeah I don't get the reference. How could it be anything but 4?
posted by Justinian at 12:05 PM on December 5, 2011


I think it's because if you don't remember order of operations, you'd think the equation is solved from left to right. So you end up getting '0' as your answer because you solved (1+1+1+1+1)*0 instead of 1+1+1+1+1*0.
posted by griphus at 12:06 PM on December 5, 2011


It's 0 if you just blindly type it into a[n iterative] calculator.
posted by ceribus peribus at 12:07 PM on December 5, 2011


It's the "distributive" property because you distribute the 3 among the terms. This is difficult?

...and we teach all this "oh, I never use it" stuff in high school to 1) make the kids' brains work harder than 1+1 2) spark the kids who *are* going to need it further. I'm an engineer because in high school, I saw some of that math stuff and said, "Holy fucking shit, that's cool how that works!" (I cussed a lot.)
posted by notsnot at 12:08 PM on December 5, 2011


it's the kind of trivial knowledge that we force kids to memorize that makes them hate math.

It's important to name these things in class. It's important to learn them, and it's important to understand them, but to keep the exact name in your head? I'm not sure. If you understand it, you'll pick up on it again once you find the name.

When doing a formal proof these days, you're not supposed to tear along writing one equivalent statement under another under another, combining them in your head and doing five steps at a time. Instead, you're supposed to apply only one mathematical property/theorem/operation per line, and identify which one

Well, sure. But by grade 10, are you still solving a basic algebra equation by formal proof? (I am assuming that in grade 10 you are mostly not doing proofs in set theory, which would look like that.)
posted by jeather at 12:09 PM on December 5, 2011


You need calculus to understand basic statistics on a deep level, but you certainly don't need it to understand what a p-value means, or what a linear model is.

Yeah, I've never actually taken a class on it, but it seemed to me when I was learning it that anything interesting involved integrals and derivatives.
posted by empath at 12:09 PM on December 5, 2011


It's the "distributive" property because you distribute the 3 among the terms. This is difficult?

It's not difficult, but it's also not, in my opinion, testing one's math ability. It's asking students to identify terms that describe how a mathematical problem can be solved. My question is simply about the frequency of these types of questions - ones that ask students to identify mathematical properties instead of utilizing mathematical properties. I don't remember answering questions like that on the standardized tests I took in school, so either this is something that varies by state, or it is something that educators have decided to test only recently.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:13 PM on December 5, 2011


This is a make or break time for him - he'll either learn to love school, or dread it. Unfortunately, the lack of any challenging material for him, and the emphasis on the things he doesn't do well (sit quietly, not lose his hat) are pretty much breaking him.

No offense, but it sounds like your child needs to work on sitting quietly and not losing his hat. It's great (really great, actually) that your kid can read and do math, but I think you're doing him a disservice by discounting the "soft" skills.
posted by LordSludge at 12:18 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


(For whatever it's worth, my last year in high school was the last year taking the government math exam was optional. So our teacher informed us that he had looked at the exam, and it was way too easy, so he'd give us the whole exam, and then add a second exam to the back of it for us to do as well. Thanks, Mr. T! Though his questions were more fun and interesting than the government ones.)
posted by jeather at 12:19 PM on December 5, 2011


Look, I don't care if anyone knows what the distributive property is actually called, but when my students are using words like "minus" and "times" as verbs (as in "just minus the 4 from both sides") it kind of makes me want to die. As someone mentioned above, having "adult conversations" involves some kind of shared vocabulary, so we should use the correct words "subtract" and "multiply".

But indeed, the classroom isn't "the real world", where apparently (or at least what everyone tells me) mathematics beyond "here's what a 15% tip should be" is completely useless. Carry on.
posted by King Bee at 12:22 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


it sounds like your child needs to work on sitting quietly and not losing his hat.

Yes, he does. And we do work on that. But it shouldn't be the only thing he works on. There isn't any reason he can't be doing stronger academic work while simultaneously working on those things. My point is that this is the exact time when a child's engagement in education is determined. For him (and I get that this is partly the luck of the draw, with the teacher we got) his first three months of "real" school have been all about failure, and focused on the things he can't do, while basically letting the skills he came to school with lie fallow. Kindergarten should not be only about learning to sit in one's seat and not speak or wiggle. It should be about learning to love learning. Our district's K program certainly isn't giving him that.
posted by anastasiav at 12:26 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


You need calculus for statistics.

Nope. You can successfully teach stats through basic regression without calculus *or* linear algebra.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:34 PM on December 5, 2011


My point is that this is the exact time when a child's engagement in education is determined. For him (and I get that this is partly the luck of the draw, with the teacher we got) his first three months of "real" school have been all about failure, and focused on the things he can't do, while basically letting the skills he came to school with lie fallow.

This is absolutely heart breaking to me and I identify with it so much. I spent all of elementary school being told that A) I was smarter than anyone else and B) I was also lazy and had no common sense, because I couldn't sit still and follow instructions. I spent all of my schooling years being a disappointment.

I wish I had some advice to you other than home schooling, but I don't :(
posted by empath at 12:35 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think this is an interesting result. Some adults are prefectly happy and really do never use high school math or english. I would like to introduce what I am calling "Learning on demand". High school students do not spend 4 years learning SOH CAH TOA or whatever bullshit they learn, they are thrown headfirst into college level courses. Any concepts they may be lacking they learn "on demand". You a 12 year old in calc 1 who does not know trig ? Well learn it now! This is simply part of my comprehensive plan to overhaul our creaking educational system. I call it "lazy learning", in which students are not taught material until the night before the test. The simplest thing to do would be to simply include the material on the tests themselves and have teachers available during the test to answer questions about the tests. Test scores go up and we waste less time learning shit nobdy cares that we know.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:40 PM on December 5, 2011


The column is either wholly or partially fabricated. So much of it the 'evidence' presented is no evidence at all. Total baloney.
posted by borges at 12:48 PM on December 5, 2011


High school students do not spend 4 years learning SOH CAH TOA or whatever bullshit they learn, they are thrown headfirst into college level courses. Any concepts they may be lacking they learn "on demand". You a 12 year old in calc 1 who does not know trig ? Well learn it now!

Indeed. Or, alternately, don't teach this "SOHCAHTOA" bullshit, instead, teach them about the unit circle and what trig functions actually, you know, are.
posted by King Bee at 1:00 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Well yeah, I'm not even sure what he is saying when he says he would have been deemed not college material. If he had been forced to take tests on stuff he was never taught that wouldnhave been patently unfair. If we was taught the matierial and simply forgot it that is a different thing entirely. If he is saying students are taught more advanced material these days, that could be good or bad. We are constanly bemoaning the fact that our child isn't learning and stacks up poorly against students from other countries, is he proposing we make the tests easier so we get more palatable results?

I say this as someone who got something like 500 math and 770 verbal and a 5 on the English lit achievement test who went on the be a programmer.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:01 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I learned what a unit circle was when I had a work deadline that forced me to figure it out to make a program work. Another argument for "learning on demand"?
posted by Ad hominem at 1:03 PM on December 5, 2011


Indeed. Or, alternately, don't teach this "SOHCAHTOA" bullshit, instead, teach them about the unit circle and what trig functions actually, you know, are.

Is there some other easy way to remember which of sine and cosine refer to the x and which to the y? Because tan was never hard, but I always ended up mixing up sine and cosine. I mean, I can picture the unit circle and what the functions mean, but there never seemed to be any (etymological? terminological?) reason I understand that sine was about y and cosine about x instead of the reverse. I just used SOHCAHTOA to figure out which one I was ever looking for. (At some later point I was using my knowledge of the derivative of sine at x=0. But I always had to work out which was which.)
posted by jeather at 1:06 PM on December 5, 2011


I'm just glad they didn't have these standardized tests for graduating wayyyyyy back when I came out of high school. I'd still be taking the test, trying to answer the basic math questions.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:06 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Poor math skills are surprisingly common among programmers. I think it has to do with a deep desire to really understand everything, and a deep aversion to memorization and manipulation of symbols for the sake of manipulating symbols.

I got bad grades in math in high school, avoided it in college, and then when I got to grad school discovered I was actually reasonably good at it and got straight A's in classes with lots of proofs like introduction to number theory and game theory.

Which just goes to show that peoples' brains work differently. I will never understand the guy who got straight A's in calculus without having any real interest or passion for it, and he'll never understand why I can't just sit down and memorize the rules in order to get an easy A.
posted by miyabo at 1:15 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there some other easy way to remember which of sine and cosine refer to the x and which to the y?

Eh, I don't know about "easy", because I never had trouble remembering. "Sine" is actually an unfortunate mis-transliteration of the word "jiva", which means half the length of the chord. This picture on wikipedia does a good job of explaining the names "sine" (allowing for the translation mixup), "secant" and "tangent". You want "cosine", "cosecant", and "cotangent"? Look at this picture. Kinda obvious that that is what you would do to get the other three trig functions, right?
posted by King Bee at 1:17 PM on December 5, 2011


I barely passed basic algebra in hs, and that was the last time I ever stepped-foot in a math class for the rest of my life. In college, I was merely required to take X-hours in the school the math department was part of. For whatever reason, history was in the same school. I loves me some history!
posted by Thorzdad at 1:20 PM on December 5, 2011


I am saying that those two pictures could have been just as easily reversed for me and I would have believed them. SOHCAHTOA was useful because it was easy to remember and then easy to use to figure out which was sine and which cosine. I grant that the actual Sanskrit word would not have helped me much to remember the difference. Understanding that sine and cosine are about the x and y coordinates of a unit circle as you change the angle is actually not the same as having it in your head which is which. I support teaching the unit circle, but there are always semi-arbitrary things that some people will have to memorise -- be it SOHCAHTOA or something to remember the names of the electron orbitals (see protons do flips) or that little drawing of a house that never made sense to me about French avoir vs etre -- and it doesn't mean there's a lack of understanding.
posted by jeather at 1:28 PM on December 5, 2011


(I will point out that in exams where I had to know left from right for whatever reason, I would actually write L and R on the top of every sheet after looking for the L that my hand makes. This may be similar to my inability to remember sine vs cosine. But I understand that left and right are different, I just cannot easily assign the right name to the right direction.)
posted by jeather at 1:32 PM on December 5, 2011


FWIW, I'm a computer programmer and I use sin/cos/tan and their inverses often enough to just know them without mnemonics. That is, I don't use them every day, or even every month, but every once in a while I need to, for example, find the coordinates of something moving along a circular arc, or allow the user to indicate an angle using the mouse cursor, and a little basic trig is the most straightforward way of doing these things. I have never in my life used the secant or cotangent functions.

I think I've needed calculus maybe three times in my entire professional career, and it was really basic calculus, like integrating polynomials. But even that small amount I needed to relearn every single time. But you know something? Relearning something is a lot easier than learning it the first time.
posted by baf at 1:36 PM on December 5, 2011


Well, it is beyond the scope of the discussion, or maybe not and could explain why some students have problems with math. I was eventually diagnosed (as much as these things can be diagnosed) With "math anxiety" stemming from childhood trauma. It was suggested I relearn basic math using kumon, an Asian math technique. When I purposefully ignore anything I learned in school I do much better, I eventually learned linear algebra and some calculus on my own. The issue was nobody believed I couldn't do math, everyone thought I was just acting up so I constantly got punished for things like not knowing multiplication tables.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:37 PM on December 5, 2011


Speaking of Kumon: is the Kumon logo supposed to look like a sad, confused person?
posted by griphus at 1:40 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


My school made me do Kumon. Awful, awful stuff. Doing thousands and thousands of problems while being timed and graded will NOT alleviate anyone's math anxiety.
posted by miyabo at 1:43 PM on December 5, 2011


> Yeah, and it's the kind of trivial knowledge that we force kids to memorize that makes them hate math.
> posted by empath at 2:54 PM on December 5 [+] [!]

I haven't forgotten what it was like learning basic algebra for the first time. For me keyword tags like associative, commutative, and distributive were definitely learning aids. They are short and descriptive. A(x+y)=Ax+Ay just looks like a distribution. They had the value of reminding me what basic operations were legal, which is to say what the basic rules of the game (of manipulating algebraic expressions) are. And that there were only three of them! YMMV, but for me they functioned exactly like other aides-memoires I heard or made up for other subjects (Q: what does the H stand for in Jesus H Christ? A: haploid.)

Concerning the subject of the fpp, I know I would not do particularly well on any test aimed at high school students if I took the test cold, because both the subject knowledge and the associative pathways that have gotten a workout in my life in the Real World(TM) are very different from the ones that were useful to me in HS. But everything you've lost comes back quicker the second time. Give me one month (not four years) to do an intensive subject-matter review for content and to work through several cram books for test format practice, and I would be ready (as I imagine, anyway) to turn in a 99+ percentile performance as usual.
posted by jfuller at 1:46 PM on December 5, 2011


I love how we have to justify basic calculus and algebra and meanwhile I've never ever had to produce an essay on the uses of symbolism in a Shakespearean play after leaving high school. Not even once.
posted by ceribus peribus at 1:47 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I never did it. I just freeze up and state into space and wait for someone else to do the math for me. I tend to date women who are very good at math so I can delegate computations to them. Someone speed calculating the cost of a cart of groceries, including sales and savings from affinity programs is a pretty big turn on.

At work I make an Indian guy do math for me, I make a russian guy do my SQL queries. I think I may be a math racist.
posted by Ad hominem at 1:51 PM on December 5, 2011


ceribus peribus: "I've never ever had to produce an essay on the uses of symbolism in a Shakespearean play after leaving high school. Not even once."

They're great for epic snarks, but I've yet to translate that into a paying job.
posted by pwnguin at 1:53 PM on December 5, 2011


Understanding that sine and cosine are about the x and y coordinates of a unit circle as you change the angle is actually not the same as having it in your head which is which.

You still have to remember sohcahtoa.

The angle is what you care about on the unit circle, since it's in polar coordinates where the coordinates are (theta,1). Then you take the point where the line intersects the circle. In the case of Sine, you care about the y coordinate because that's the opposite side of the right triangle that you formed.. Since it's the unit circle, the 'hypotenuse' is always 1. For Cosine, you are about the adjacent side, which is the x coordinate.
posted by empath at 1:53 PM on December 5, 2011


You need calculus for statistics.

You need calculus to derive a lot of the results of statistics, but not to use them.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:59 PM on December 5, 2011


The angle is what you care about on the unit circle, since it's in polar coordinates where the coordinates are (theta,1). Then you take the point where the line intersects the circle.

I think we agree here. I just, when knowing that, could not have told you if sine is the x point or the y point. Even when I was using it every day, I had to work it out every day again, using SOHCAHTOA or "gee, I remember that sin(x)/x is 0/0, so it must be y". People create mnemonics for a reason.

(I have used my art history more outside of school than my literature, and my French most of all, which I think would have appalled me as a teenager.)
posted by jeather at 2:02 PM on December 5, 2011


I never did it. I just freeze up and state into space and wait for someone else to do the math for me. I tend to date women who are very good at math so I can delegate computations to them. Someone speed calculating the cost of a cart of groceries, including sales and savings from affinity programs is a pretty big turn on.

Do people actually do this? I just set a price that I think everything in the cart costs, and guess off that. I'm usually right within what seems like a reasonable margin of error to me (no more than $10 at the grocery store). Obviously, you have to vary this by store so it goes something like this:

Safeway: $4
Whole Foods: $6
right up through
IKEA: $40

Oh, and I always add 20% if I'm trying to convince my wife to put something back.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 2:04 PM on December 5, 2011


Usually at Safeway I'm buying the same things over and over, so I know their prices. If I just round all the prices to the nearest dollar and add up the rounded prices I usually get within a couple bucks. I have asked students to calculate the likely size of the error in this procedure as an example of the central limit theorem.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:07 PM on December 5, 2011


Do people actually do this

Yes, I have seen people come within a dollar. It is like magic. They really just have a running total while putting things in the cart (all items must be marked by law where I am) and do some final figuring at the checkout, but it is impressive to me.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:10 PM on December 5, 2011


I think we agree here. I just, when knowing that, could not have told you if sine is the x point or the y point. Even when I was using it every day, I had to work it out every day again, using SOHCAHTOA or "gee, I remember that sin(x)/x is 0/0, so it must be y". People create mnemonics for a reason.

Back when I was in high school we learned the unit circle, and the values for sin and cos for 0°, 30°, 45°, 60°, and 90°. After that sohcahtoa seems sort of redundant (and I don't recall hearing of it until later in University). While that seemed somewhat onerous at the time, knowing that cos(45°) = sqrt(2)/2 has actually turned out to be rather useful more than once.
posted by selenized at 2:10 PM on December 5, 2011


Usually at Safeway I'm buying the same things over and over, so I know their prices.

When I worked at safeway, we had a few customers like that and they liked to argue every frigging week when their total came up. Usually they were right, but it was annoying all the same.
posted by empath at 2:18 PM on December 5, 2011


"People create mnemonics for a reason."

Fun story. My algebra 2 teacher taught us the unit circle via the following drill:

Teacher: I say cosine you say X. I say sine you say Y!
Teacher: Cosine!
Students: X!
Teacher: Sine!
Students: Y!
Teacher: Cosine!
Students: X!
Teacher: Sine!
Students: Y!

And so on for a minute for a few days. I'm not sure why I needed this in the "instant recall" category, but I can still remember that cosine is x without a mnemonic.

The preview is screwing up the bolding and i dont know why.
posted by pwnguin at 2:39 PM on December 5, 2011


You still have to remember sohcahtoa.

No, you don't, not if you look at the figure I linked to above and understand the trig functions in that way.
posted by King Bee at 2:39 PM on December 5, 2011


But then you're memorizing a lot more stuff.
posted by empath at 2:46 PM on December 5, 2011


No, you don't, not if you look at the figure I linked to above and understand the trig functions in that way.

If you relabelled the two figures you linked to as each other (sin/tan/sec about x, cos/csc/cot about y), they would make just as much sense. You still have to remember which group is which.

I could also remember that the functions were 1/2 and (3^1/2)/2, but not which was which for 30/60 and sine/cosine.

Still seems like sine=y and cosine=x instead of the reverse is completely arbitrary, or the reasoning is based on a culture I have no idea about. Some people probably can remember which is which without a mnemonic, but if you cannot, it is not necessarily because you just don't understand the concept of trig. (I am sure there are people who don't understand trig and who also mix up sine and cosine.)
posted by jeather at 2:47 PM on December 5, 2011


Has anyone suggested that the board member fellow be fired for incompetence, or did I just miss it in the thread? 'Cause that guy should definitely be fired. ;)
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:58 PM on December 5, 2011


In my crazy messed-up mind I remember that cosine = x, sine=y to keep track of whether cos(30°) is sqrt(3)/2 or 1/2, etc.

My math teacher, back in the day, claimed that while ancient peoples did trig to some extent they chose different ratios to describe angles than we do today. That we base our trig on sine, cosine, and tangents - he said - had more to do with the revolution in navigation than anything particular about triangles.
posted by selenized at 3:01 PM on December 5, 2011


You still have to remember which group is which.

Alright, yes, you do. I just don't understand what is so hard about it (maybe that's my problem). If I introduce the functions in this way, that's just the way they are, then remembering that sine is the y coordinate is akin to remembering that Ophelia is a character from Hamlet, not Macbeth. Of course it's arbitrary; Shakespeare could have easily named that character "Betty" instead, or put that name in Macbeth, or whatever.

But there is a reason why secant is called secant. Because it's the line that cuts through. There is a reason why tangent is called tangent. It's because that vertical line is actually tangent to the circle. These names are descriptive. (The horrible example of sine being a mistranslation notwithstanding.)

My point is that it isn't particularly out of control like some of the commenters are making it seem here.
posted by King Bee at 3:05 PM on December 5, 2011


I love how we have to justify basic calculus and algebra and meanwhile I've never ever had to produce an essay on the uses of symbolism in a Shakespearean play after leaving high school. Not even once.

Shakepeare, the "classics", analyzing poetry... -- sure, never used a bit of it. I truly can't remember whether or not I even read Jane Eyre. I wouldn't have missed it.

But, then, I work in a technical field, so one would not expect me to use literature skills in my profession. The very idea is silly ...although my code does approach poetry at times... ::ahem::, so it would not have been a compelling example. But for me to work in a technical field and discount most of the math I was taught is more likely to give one pause to reconsider our academic priorities.
posted by LordSludge at 3:15 PM on December 5, 2011


Still seems like sine=y and cosine=x instead of the reverse is completely arbitrary, or the reasoning is based on a culture I have no idea about.

I think it's just historical reasons; sine was the first one studied. If memory serves, in Eli Maor's Trigonometric Delights it's explained that sine and tangent were studied separately for a long time before the modern picture of six trig functions was developed. Cosine was short for "sine of the complementary angle", and existed just to save paper (by printing trig tables with two columns of 45 entries instead of one column with 90 entries).

As to why sine was first studied, well, this is just a guess, but when doing geometry in the style of Euclid, once Euclid III.21 is known (animated GIF illustration!, self-link), it's pretty natural to ask "What's the length of the chord subtended by a given angle in a circle (of, say, unit diameter)?" That's the sine function. Of course cosine could easily have been first, if defined by measuring the defect in the Pythagorean theorem for non-right triangles, as in the formula now known as the law of cosines.
posted by stebulus at 3:16 PM on December 5, 2011


I just don't understand what is so hard about it (maybe that's my problem).

I don't know either. But since a lot of people use their mnemonics, I think it's not crazy to think that this isn't really obvious. People can remember stories and names in a way they cannot remember parts of a circle. I'm not saying all trig names are completely arbitrary, but the sine vs cosine first choice -- x vs y -- is.

(What is so hard about remembering left vs right, or east vs west? I don't know, but I look at my hands for one and use a mnemonic for the other, every single time. I take the same route to work every day and have to figure out each time if the traffic report I care about is the 40W or the 40E, though I always know I am looking for 15N in the morning and 15S in the evening. But true, I have not confused Ophelia and Desdemona.)
posted by jeather at 3:17 PM on December 5, 2011


But true, I have not confused Ophelia and Desdemona.

Indeed, ant that probably has a lot to do with the fact that they're characters in stories (as you mention). Maybe if we can figure out how to teach these things differently so that students got acquainted with special kinds of functions in a way similar to how people form connections with characters in stories, we'd be a lot more successful.
posted by King Bee at 3:27 PM on December 5, 2011


Proposal: rename sine and cosine "Ophelia" and "Desdemona", respectively.

Or, more practically, write two different stories starring Sine and Cosine, and make them famous enough to be memorable.
posted by miyabo at 3:30 PM on December 5, 2011


But for me to work in a technical field and discount most of the math I was taught is more likely to give one pause to reconsider our academic priorities.

Mostly, the point isn't that you desperately need to know how to take a partial derivative (though some people do), or whatever, it's that we're using basic math as a vehicle to teach problem-solving. Sure, no one's going to say "Express such and such as a function of whatever", but that's step one to solving any number of mundane problems and yet students fall to pieces at that stage all the time.

It's vaguely plausible some of them might need to know, say, Lagrange multipliers (apparently it's big in 'business'--I honestly can't even remember if I was taught it), but they all need the skills necessary to parse a word problem and set up the damn Lagrange multiplier. They need the deductive skills necessary to solve it.

You can explain just about anything in the school math curriculum that way, pretty much. I've not done a surface integral since my senior year of high school. Unless I teach multivariable calculus, it's entirely plausible that I will never do one again. I would, however, be willing to bet that some of the people who were in that class with me have done a whole hell of a lot of surface integrals since then. Most of it's going to be directly useful to someone sometime and it's teaching the rest of us something while we're at it. (Also, I like Lagrange multipliers.)
posted by hoyland at 3:34 PM on December 5, 2011


I love how we have to justify basic calculus and algebra and meanwhile I've never ever had to produce an essay on the uses of symbolism in a Shakespearean play after leaving high school. Not even once.

I work in a technical field, and have undergraduate degrees in History and English. Watching my peers fail to communicate with management and teammates because they lack basic liberal arts skills is painful. If you can't express your ideas to an audience in a technology field, you're effectively monolingual. Worse, you're on the side of monolingual that has less influence.

Shakespeare was a master of the well-turned phrase. Knowing and using the cultural shortcuts he popularized is a tool in your communications quiver.

If that doesn't appeal, you may wish to consult Alain De Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.
posted by Mad_Carew at 3:35 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or, more practically, write two different stories starring Sine and Cosine, and make them famous enough to be memorable.

Or, more seriously, find out why people care about made up characters in made up stories that have absolutely no bearing on their future jobs and careers more than they would about certain mathematical topics.
posted by King Bee at 3:39 PM on December 5, 2011


Here's the thing: in high school, and in college to a degree, you learn how to learn.

Yet they never teach this outright. Why not?
posted by symbollocks at 4:02 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yet they never teach this outright. Why not?

Maybe because we all obsess over education teaching things that are "practical", by which we mean discrete facts that we deem useful? It seems to me that whenever people start wringing their hands over what is being taught in schools people very quickly fall into the "what is practical?" question while throwing out all other, more subtle, considerations.
posted by selenized at 4:21 PM on December 5, 2011


Here's the thing: in high school, and in college to a degree, you learn how to learn.

The high school my kids attend has conceded that education in the 21st century is not about rote memorization or even to some extent learning calculus functions although they all take advanced math it seems like. For the most part every single one of these kids has the world's knowledge in the palm of their hand. Nothing a good search can't find on their Blackberry if they would stop bbm-ing for a few minutes. The goal of the high school is to teach the kids to think critically. To be able to take facts and information and apply them in some way. They recognize that 90% of what is taught in high school will either not lead to a job directly or that job does not even exist right now, so there is no way to make school a training ground for the real world unless you recognize that critical thinking is what every job requires. I guess what I am trying to say is that high school is not only about how to learn, but how to think; how to apply knowledge.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:39 PM on December 5, 2011


Here in the US, we teach number concepts, plus money, time, shapes, tens and ones, patterns, data and graphs... sometimes one concept in the space of a week. Then they expand on each concept every year, but the kids never really master any of them.

Oh man, is this true. I tutor kids from five to eighteen, and kids of all of those ages have homework on fractions. But only for a week or two each year. Then they take a test on it, then they learn it fresh next year, only remembering the general concept. It's a huge waste of time. 5-10 hours on a concept it generally not enough for most people to grasp it, especially if they're not math people.

Also, these tests don't teach anything except test preparedness. It's crazy. No one writes like they want you to write on the SAT writing question. It's also wildly unfair. I'm not a particularly good tutor, but I've never had a student improve by less than 100 points, about 250 is my average. All it takes is 15 hours, some individual attention, and about $600. No actual learning takes place. They take nothing away from the lessons except a higher score. I could teach neat stuff, but that's not what helps. What helps is learning how the sentence completion section tries to trick you, how to eliminate choices, how to do as little math as possible to answer a question, how to write a boilerplate, feel-good essay about absolutely nothing in thirty minutes. Actual reading comprehension, grammar, and math are left out. Good news to everyone who can afford that $600, sucks for you if you can't.
posted by Garm at 4:40 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Maybe because we all obsess over education teaching things that are "practical", by which we mean discrete facts that we deem useful?

Could be, and that's a shame. I've always felt learning processes or overarching theories to be far more practical than learning individual facts. I imagine it's a lot easier to test and grade fact retention.
posted by LordSludge at 4:59 PM on December 5, 2011


Was it B.F. Skinner that said "education is what remains when everything that was learned has been forgotten?". Apologies if this is already in previous comments, didn't read them all.
posted by bquarters at 5:07 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I went to engineering school back in the stone ages and we weren't allowed to use calculators in first year calculus and algebra. Hence I will always remember my unit triangles--all you need is SOHCAHTOA, and then you can work out basic sin/cos/tan using a 1-1-sqrt 2 triangle (for 45 deg.) and a 1-sqrt 3-2 triangle (for 30 and 60 deg). Much easier to remember the word SOHCAHTOA than the unit circle (for me anyway).

I do still find it hard to believe that this guy couldn't pass grade 10 math. I once brought home a bunch of grade 10 math final exams and Mr. Go Banana and some other engineering friends did the exam for sport (time limit of half an hour for a two hour exam, much alcohol involved). I think all five of them managed to pass.
posted by Go Banana at 6:38 PM on December 5, 2011


That we base our trig on sine, cosine, and tangents - he said - had more to do with the revolution in navigation than anything particular about triangles.

Also, sine and cosine are the basis of the space of solutions to the equation x'' + x = 0.
posted by madcaptenor at 6:43 PM on December 5, 2011


Let me take the test - the exact same test this man took. I'd probably fail the math section, but it's been over 35 years since I took a math class; if I'd taken high-school mathematics for the last two or three years, I'd expect to pass the test.

I graduated in 1963 with a less-than-stellar GPA, but I wonder if the kids today could have passed our SAT. Maybe it's just that the times have changed, because I don't see any outstanding differences between today's young people and those of my generation -- all young people are smart and most of them don't want to waste energy on anything that doesn't seem to have a point, which includes most everything taught in high school to your average 15-year-old.

I hate to see teaching directed toward passing a test, but at least it's teaching.
posted by aryma at 7:36 PM on December 5, 2011


No offense, but it sounds like your child needs to work on sitting quietly and not losing his hat. It's great (really great, actually) that your kid can read and do math, but I think you're doing him a disservice by discounting the "soft" skills.

Bullshit. Soft skills are taught in school through humiliation and social scorn. Kids who have trouble figuring out the behavioral norms are used as examples, not taught how to behave. Teachers as early as Kindergarten are helpful to point out to the bullies and the popularity princesses who the loser kids are. (And you'll note the bullies are never held accountable. They're too useful a tool.)

If you could teach a kid to sit still and be quiet and not lose his hat in a way that doesn't involve him being pushed around on the playground or taunted in the girls room, great. Some teachers actually do this, and they're awesome.

The teachers I had, and that my 9y.o. nephew had (in Cambridge, MA, no less!), they did things the other way. Sic the other kids on him until he gets in line, and if he never gets in line, sucks to be him.

Fuck that noise. The second that happens to my kid, I go nuclear - screw the school system. Learn to love to learn, and I will support you until you get your GED.

I went through 13 years of American-style school, and I'm not going to take any more crap from it now that I'm a grown-up.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:07 PM on December 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Listening to what my younger cousins went through at school, I have been suspecting for years that I (who was in the Gifted and Talented program and whatnot as a kid, was a Diane Court type minus the looks) wouldn't be able to graduate high school if I was going right now. This really makes me think I might be right on that.

Yeah, yeah, I know, hadn't done school math in years, it's a testing culture and whatnot, but still.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:54 PM on December 5, 2011


I went through 16 years of losing my hat. And utterly forgetting to turn in homework assignments, losing my textbooks, coming to class half an hour late (or sometimes early!), falling asleep in class because I was up all night learning about something bizarre and interesting, never taking notes, and generally making teachers furious.

I'm not sure if the school system is capable of making people less quirky and unpredictable, but it definitely didn't have that effect on me. It just made me depressed when I got yelled at all the time for not doing things that I just couldn't do.

And now I'm a happy, productive, and respected member of society. I have a job where no one cares if I show up at odd times, I have my own office so it's pretty much impossible to lose important things, and there is a secretary who reminds me to do stuff if I forget. And I probably make twice as much as the best-paid of my teachers. Neener neener neener.
posted by miyabo at 8:55 PM on December 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


When you are in school, you are learning complex, arbitrary things (like history and math) and are expected to learn and practice them sufficiently to test well, to show that you have learned how to study; that is, how to learn and practice things. How to use your mind effectively.

When you enter the workforce, you may have a job that relies on your knowledge of complex, arbitrary things, and so you'll continue to know those things you've learned, and many other new things. Or you may have a job that relies on your ability to learn and practice things, and so you may end up with a completely different skillset (with those things you learned in school fading into the background.)

So this person flunking the test surprises me not at all, despite his "[helping to] oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and [being able to] make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities." Obviously he can learn and practice complex, arbitrary things, and has been a tremendous success because of those abilities.

Hell, six years ago I was a Flash guru, and could code rings around just about everyone I worked with. Now, I am an HTML/CSS guru, and the last time I tried to open the Flash IDE I couldn't figure out how to do "hello, world" without opening a book. You retain the skills you practice, and lose the ones you don't. Rocket science this is not.
posted by davejay at 10:04 PM on December 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Soft skills are taught in school through humiliation and social scorn.

Very often, yes. Even classmate cruelty aside, soft skills are critical to career success. (This, from a math & science guy who used to poo-poo non-technical skills as useless fluff.) So let's find better ways to teach soft skills!
posted by LordSludge at 10:26 PM on December 5, 2011


Soft skills are taught in school through humiliation and social scorn.

Better to learn them through humiliation and social scorn as a kid, than to have to scramble to catch up on them in the workplace, where you study up on your soft skills because there is real money and security tied to whether you can convincingly act like a normal person and get along with people for 8+ hours a day.

If you've never had trouble with your soft skills, it's because your schooling and your upbringing did an effective job of teaching you soft skills, not because they aren't important.

I'm quite certain I could blow away the exams this dude failed. Standardized tests are my superpower. However, I bet if we were dropped into the same cocktail party, one of us would build his professional network, and one of us would find a convenient broom closet in which to hide.
posted by troublesome at 11:58 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


In glancing through the CA chem test, I found a question for which the answer required knowing a particular fact that I never learned or used in years of college chem, tutoring and teaching.

Which raises the question: in evaluating student knowledge, who decides what is worth knowing (as opposed to something you'd just look up if you needed it). Along the lines of "who watches the watchers."

I thought we learned long ago from the many frailties of IQ tests that they tend to reflect the cultural values of their framers. Tests created from subsets of any discipline not only reflect the biases of the test creator(s), they may fail to account for the diversity (collective wisdom) that's found in any disciplinary community.

Students need exposure to the biases of many teachers in a discipline. Which is how education worked in the past, and which produced (in the West) very productive disciplines - entirely without standardized testing. Standardization of "knowledge" is contraindicated if what you're looking for is versatility, creativeness, and openness to new solutions for new problems.

In short: no merely rational education metric can possibly replace the collective wisdom of the educational community. Therefore, BUTT OUT and leave education to those who've dedicated themselves to it.
posted by Twang at 12:31 AM on December 6, 2011


I have my notebooks for high school maths. I know they're mine, because the endless pages of quadratics and trig and vectors and matrices and shit are in my handwriting. The marks indicate that I was very, very good at whatever it was.

It's total gibberish to me now. As in, I can't even begin to understand how it works, or why it was important.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:13 AM on December 6, 2011


And I probably make twice as much as the best-paid of my teachers. Neener neener neener.

Congratulations, we're all very proud of you.
posted by King Bee at 5:09 AM on December 6, 2011


I can perfectly remember the quadratic formula, but damned if I could tell you what it's used for!
posted by Burritos Inc. at 8:21 AM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


In evaluating student knowledge, who decides what is worth knowing (as opposed to something you'd just look up if you needed it). Along the lines of "who watches the watchers."

State boards of education. These are the people who decides what is a part of what you learn in grade 2 or grade 10. These are, in some states, very hotly contested because they can turn into big culture wars [how to explain evolution/creation is a big one, there are other more subtle things]. However, as state agencies, the stuff they make, their standards and frameworks are available online. These don't vary MUCH from state to state, but they do vary a little. As a result the major textbook companies often will gear their textbooks to the standards of the large states like California and Texas, or the really out there states like Kansas, and other states need to basically fill in the blanks or just get with the program [yay capitalism!]. You can Google the state boards of education to see what these standards are. Here's one for California, for example. The standardized tests are absolutely pegged to these standards.
posted by jessamyn at 8:30 AM on December 6, 2011


My students are taking a standardized test right now. They read texts and answer questions about these texts. Two days from now they will write about how the authors established their voice by using figurative language, diction and imagery. Not a bad test for 9th grade English. Of course, if someone else were to grade their essays and my pay is affected, things would get a little dicey.

Twenty or thirty years ago I took a test to get certified for California teaching. I got 100% in math. I'm terrible in math. I got an 80% in reading, and a 60% in writing. I write pretty well. Perhaps too well for the people who were expecting a five-paragraph essay.

"Assessment" (they don't use the T-word anymore) is a tricky business. So is teaching, by the way, as most of you know. I love my job and don't complain about the money, but the amount of time I spend on the ever-increasing clerical aspects of my job means that I grade papers pretty much every night and much of the weekend.

Five minutes, everyone!
posted by kozad at 9:31 AM on December 6, 2011


"As a result the major textbook companies often will gear their textbooks to the standards of the large states like California and Texas"

To add to this, I believe Texas does statewide textbook buys (or at least statewide approvals) -- the state curriculum is fairly mandatory for individual districts, and the state board is a hard-fought election as a result. In Illinois, which also has a large student population, the state board sets STANDARDS that will be tested but not curriculum. Individual districts develop curriculum, and individual districts buy textbooks, whatever ones they choose. This means Illinois gets no textbook love despite being one of the largest student-population states. (And that the state board in Illinois is not nearly as important as in Texas.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:58 AM on December 6, 2011


kozad: "Not a bad test for 9th grade English. Of course, if someone else were to grade their essays and my pay is affected, things would get a little dicey."

I've always wondered, why the hell do we allow that kind of ethical dilemma? Shouldn't there be some kind of testing staff, or at least some randomly assigned rotation?
posted by pwnguin at 11:29 AM on December 6, 2011


empath: "I think it's a case of mistaking the map for the territory."

Good metaphor, but I don't think there's any "mistaking" going on here. In real life, both knowing how to read a map and how to navigate the territory are important skills. The question we're discussing tests both.
posted by Plutor at 5:47 AM on December 7, 2011


There was a similar (though far less meaningful) story in the UK press a couple of years ago -- a famous businessman was challenged to take an A-level business exam, along with the reporter who challenged him. He got top marks, and she barely scraped a pass. Presumably the specialist subject matter was friendlier than a more general assessment.
posted by rollick at 5:35 AM on December 8, 2011


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