College Professors Should be on MD Task Force on the HSAs

(High School Assessments)


Jerome Dancis, Associate Professor Emeritus,  Department of Mathematics


The MD State Department of Education has written High School Assessments (HSAs) on English, on Biology, on Government and on [Some concepts from] Functions, Algebra, Data analysis and Probability. [Please browse them on the web. [i]]


For the past half decade, MD high school students were required to take, but not required to pass these exams.  Starting with the class of 2009, passing these exams is scheduled to become a public high school graduation requirement in MD.  There is a sizable number of students at risk of not passing these exams and hence not graduating in 2009. 


This possibility of students not graduating from high school prompted MD state legislators to introduce House Bill HB994 and Senate Bill SB475 on "Establishing the Task Force on the Policy and Funding Implications of Requiring Passage of the High School Assessment for Graduation".[ii]   The senate bill has 25 sponsors, out of 47 senators. 


The bills specify that the task force will have 17 members, who are considered stakeholders; for example, there will be two local school superintendents and one public school student.  College academic departments should be considered stakeholders, with expertise.  BUT, college professors are NOT on the list of stakeholder task force members.   Perhaps, the senate should advocate for the inclusion of college professors of English, Biology, Government and Mathematics in the task force's membership.


For example:  A college Math professor could inform the task force of the really bad consequences of the MD HSA on Algebra for students when they arrive in college. 


Actually there is NO MD HSA on Algebra; it's really an HSA on Pretend Algebra.  MD school systems are replacing their traditional Algebra I courses, with the syllabus of the MD [pretend] Algebra exam.  A consequence is that many freshmen have weak understanding of Algebra and Arithmetic. At UMCP, a consequence is that many students do not succeed in the college major of their choice. 


Is the Mathematics on the HSAs on Mathematics, useful Mathematics?   (Debatable, some is misleading; much is low level useful.)                   Is it correct Mathematics?   (NOT all)


Does an MSDE's "highly qualified" endorsement for middle school math teacher necessarily mean that the math teacher necessarily has sufficient expertise in Math to provide students with a solid background in the topics on the HSA on Algebra.  (NO)


Similar questions should be asked about the other HSAs; answers could be supplied by college professors, from academic departments.









Aligning High School Algebra with College Algebra         NOT


By  Jerome Dancis


High school Algebra I used to be quite similar to college Algebra. No more! Now MSDE requires high school Algebra 1 to be aligned with the MD’s HSA on Functions, Algebra, Data analysis and Probability.  As MD state assistant superintendent, Gary Heath, said, "We would be the first to tell you [the MD HSA on Algebra] doesn’t have a lot of algebra, nor was it intended to."  [iii]  


Basic Algebra like *  solving  2x = 8,  by dividing by  2,  or  *  knowing   x + 2x = 3x   or *  graphing  y = 3 x + 7  by hand or  *  adding fractions are EXCLUDED from Maryland's state mandated Algebra I syllabus. Instead students use graphing calculators. This sets up students to have unnecessarily difficulties with high school and college courses, which use Algebra.  But, as the head of math instruction for the state, Donna Watts, said "There is a limited population who can do math symbolically, the way mathematicians do. … " [iv]


College professors are distressed by the low level of understanding of Algebra and Arithmetic by masses of students as they enter college; even students, who have taken calculus in high school.


So, the local college math professors' professional association has broken tradition by issuing its first statement ever on high school math education. [v]   College math professors decreed:

"Students should be able to perform Algebra and Arithmetic calculations, without the assistance of calculators."


This is the opposite of the MD HSA on [pretend] Algebra, which effective mandates the exclusive use of calculators for Arithmetic and Algebra.


As Montgomery County Algebra I teachers were told, at a 1999 staff development session: "Do not worry about students understanding algebra -- Just be sure they can put anything on their hand calculators."  This is a very good strategy if the goal is just to have students pass the MD [pretend] Algebra exam.  But, this strategy sets up students to be really weak in Algebra.


Two quotes from: "State and County Math Standards Hurt Student Performance" [vi]   "MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools] mandated changes to the Algebra I curriculum to align the course with the tested material [MD's Algebra Exam]. 'We don't think the material is what they need to know to be successful [in Algebra II and Precalculus],' said Blair H.S. algebra lead teacher Maria Costello".


"Changes in the curriculum are cited as a main cause for students' deficiencies in basic algebra, which are manifesting themselves in higher level math courses that require an understanding of concepts taught in Algebra I.  'Our Algebra II students are worse than ever. Our Pre-Calculus students are worse than ever.  It's falling apart as we go up the ladder,' said Costello."


Arithmetic is the crucial background for real Algebra. But the MD Voluntary Curriculum marginalizes Arithmetic. This makes it difficult for students to develop fluency in Arithmetic.


“Students are still shocked when they’re told they need developmental courses,’’ said Donna McKusik, the senior director of developmental, or remedial, education at the Community College of Baltimore County. … But the first, and sometimes last, stop for many are remedial math classes. “It’s the math that’s killing us,’’ Dr. McKusik said. “More than one in four remedial students work on elementary and middle school arithmetic. Math is where students often lose confidence and give up.”       (The New York Times  September 2, 2006)


Thus, MD Voluntary Curriculum marginalizes Arithmetic and the MSDE mandated High School Algebra 1 is not aligned with College Algebra. Thus the HSA and MSA are setting up many students to take remedial Arithmetic and remedial College Algebra when they enter college. Many do not know enough Arithmetic to succeed.   


At UMCP, many freshmen have weak understanding of Algebra and Arithmetic. A consequence is that many students do not succeed in the college major of their choice.  As the MD school systems replace their Math curriculum with the MD Voluntary Curriculum and MSDE Algebra I curriculum, expect the situation to deteriorate further.





[ii]  These bills would be "requiring the Task Force to review and evaluate the use of the high school assessment as a Maryland diploma requirement and make findings and recommendations; requiring the Task Force to report its findings and recommendations … before November 2, 2007"    The bills, HB994 and SB475 are on the web at and

[iii]  Washington Post front page Aug16, 2002

[iv]   Washington Post, December 25, 2003; Page GZ06

[v]   The MD/DC/VA SECTION OF THE MAA issued its statement, "ON MATHEMATICS PREPAREDNES" of students as they enter college.  The statement may be accessed from the * 1/22/2005 entry at .  ( The MAA is the Mathematical Association of America, the professional association, for college math instruction, of college professors of mathematics)

[vi]  Silver Chips, (Dec. 18, 2003), the student newspaper of Blair High School  (Silver Spring, MD)    (