Musings on Everything

I muse, therefore I write.

On Standards

So, as I’m sure you all know, the PSSA standardized tests are officially completed. Every high school junior in the state of Pennsylvania has finished their government-mandated standardized testing forever.

So, of course, people are happy. I’m happy. No more time wasted sitting in room 142 watching the clock tick the hours away.

However, those PSSA scores do go into calculating just how well the US stacks up against students from other countries, who have also had to take standardized tests. Which basically means the US ends up looking rather sucky. And which brings the wrath of some people. I was reading the Time 100 issue, and noticed this letter to the editor:

Your article on education standards included a table ranking the performance of 15-year-olds globally [April 27]. I feel that we, as a nation, are being censured for our expansive access to education. The U.S. extends the duration of compulsory education way past that of many other countries. We educate immigrants, regardless of their level of English language. We educate children with disabilities, many of whom have their scores factored into overall  standardized-test scores. I fear this sort of misleading data will lead to a further “amping up” of current standards. In California we already teach fifth-graders how to solve and graph linear equations. Will we be doing logarithms next?

Carol Tensen, Burbank, California

She has some good points here. The US does bring in an astonishing amount of free riders into its education system. They get the full benefits of education that they have not paid for with taxes, and that’s an amazing thing, because heaven knows the US needs smart people, no matter whether they are Mexican or from Middletown, USA. Children with disabilities have a full right to education as well. If the world had not educated Stephen Hawking, I’m not sure I would be typing this right now.

But there is one thing I have a little bit of a disagreement with. Why, Ms. Tensen, should fifth graders not be doing logarithms in fifth grade? Is there something fundamentally wrong with logarithms? Are they “too complicated” for younger students? I could never consider any math concept to be relatively hard on its own merit. In fact, the only things that I have ever considered to be “hard” concepts in math, I was taught by bad teachers. Things like geometry. I still don’t know anything of geometry except for the Pythagorean theorem.

Of course, the reason for her reluctance may be something a little bit less patronizing, like perhaps the teacher doesn’t know how to teach the concept of a logarithm such that fifth graders can understand them. Why not teach the concept as the opposite of an exponent, which I’m sure every fifth grader should be able to grasp. Just as addition and subtraction are opposites, exponents and logarithms are opposites. Easy.

What really irks me about this letter, though, is that this woman implies that fifth graders are not capable of understanding the concept. Has she tried to teach fifth graders logarithms? I don’t know. It sounds like she hasn’t, though, and that is what gets me angry. Who is this woman to assume that children aren’t capable of learning concepts that are just a tad complicated? Not being able to grasp the finer points and applications of a logarithm in the greater mathematical spectrum, fine, I can’t expect fifth graders to grasp that. But not teaching students logarithms at all in fifth grade, simply because you don’t think they can take it? That’s just deliberately underestimating your students, madam. Not only is that unfair to them on its own, it jeopardizes your students’ chances of moving quickly through the ranks of math education to get to the same level of competence that the competition is at. I’ve seen my dad’s old textbooks from school. They definitely were doing algebra (and logarithms, mind you) by sixth grade. I only got to algebra in seventh grade, and I was two years ahead of the standard curriculum.

So, basically, Ms. Tensen, don’t assume that kids can’t learn things just because they’re young. Just because you weren’t able to grasp these concepts doesn’t mean that your students won’t be able to. That is all.


Written by Sri

May 2, 2009 at 12:51 PM

Posted in Musings

2 Responses

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  1. Stephen Hawking is British. And his syndrome didn’t show itself till he was in college. Just saying.


    May 2, 2009 at 4:15 PM

    • Oh, very well. I’ll change it.


      May 2, 2009 at 9:24 PM

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