When It Comes To Math, Words Count

By Jerome Dancis

Washington Post. Outlook, the Sunday's Post's opinion and commentary section.   September 8, 2002; Page B04



Last week, a report released by the Brookings Institution revealed that American students are falling behind in their arithmetic skills.

Given the demonizing of computational skills -- such as how to multiply 23 by 37 -- by the nationwide math reform movement (part of the educational reform movement, which demonizes memorizing anything), this was predictable. As an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, I've seen students arrive with increasingly poor training, and ever weaker math skills and knowledge. But computational competence is only a fraction of the problem. Another, largely unrecognized, factor is students' poor reading skills.

If Johnny can't read, then he can't do math. It is not enough to know how to add, subtract, multiply or divide numbers; one must also know which numbers to add, subtract, multiply or divide, and when to do which calculation. Students must be able to understand the wording of problems well enough to translate them into mathematical expressions and equations.

Having reviewed both the Maryland Functional Mathematics Test, which requires students to calculate, and its likely replacement, the Maryland High School Assessment on Functions, Algebra, Data Analysis and Probability (Maryland algebra test, for short), I know much of the math is absurdly easy. Yet students reportedly are doing badly on the field tests of the new algebra exam, even though they are provided with fancy graphing calculators when they take it.

Since students are given calculators, their poor performance cannot be blamed on trouble doing basic computation. So they must be having difficulty understanding what they are reading.

Two of the easier questions from the sample Maryland algebra test demonstrate this deficiency in reading comprehension. (You can view the sample test at http://www.mdk12.org/mspp/high_school/look_like/algebra/intro.html.)

QUESTION 1 (Item 2 from the sample test)

The United States Congress is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The matrices [tables] below show the number of members in Congress from 1983 through 1989.

Senate 1983 198519871989
D           54     53    55    55
R           46     47    45    45
I              0       0      0      0

House 1983 1985 1987 1989
D          269   252   258   259
R          165   182   177   174
I              0       0      0      0

What was the total number of Democrats in Congress in 1985?

[Multiple Choice]

F 229   G 235   H 305    J 534

When Question 1 was field tested in 2000, one out of five students missed it. Most likely reading comprehension was the major reason for missing this question, since students can surely use a calculator to add 252 + 53.

QUESTION 2 (Item 48 from the sample test)

The table below shows how a typical household spends money on utilities.

Utility                                  Pct. of Total Utility Costs
Lighting                               6
Refrigeration                         9
Water heating                       14
Appliances                           27
Heating and cooling             44

A typical household spent $1,400 on utilities last year. If there are no significant changes in their (sic) utility usage for this year, how much should they (sic) budget for heating and cooling their (sic) home this year?

[Multiple Choice]

F $196   G $378   H $616    J $784

To answer Question 2, one would simply use a calculator to calculate 44 percent of $1,400 ($616). Yet, when Question 2 was field tested in 2000, 22 percent of students skipped it, and less than half -- 44 percent -- of students who tried it got it right.

This cries out for serious improvement in reading instruction. The arithmetic level of these problems is much lower than the reading comprehension level. And, overall, the math level on the Maryland algebra sample test is lower than the reading comprehension level.

Luckily, the Maryland legislature just passed a new educational funding law. Hopefully, some of the funds will be allocated to the training of our children in the very precise reading comprehension needed to do the math problems that arise in school and in the real world, as well as on tests.

Jerome Dancis, who has taught math at the University of Maryland for three decades, spent the past year advocating that Maryland put some real algebra in its state algebra test.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company