In this morning’s Asheville Citizen-Times was a story about a math question on our state seventh-grade test. I couldn’t find an online version from our local paper, but here’s a link to the story in Greensboro’s News-Record. A summary from the story:
On an end-of-grade test this month, seventh-graders had to calculate the average gain for a team on the game’s first six plays. But the team did not gain 10 yards on the first four plays and would have lost possession before a fifth and sixth play.
Further down in the story we come to the infuriating part:
Mildred Bazemore, chief of the state Department of Public Instruction’s test development section, said the question makes sense mathematically and was reviewed thoroughly.
“It has nothing to do with football,” Bazemore said. “It has to do with the mathematical concepts that you’re studying.”
We work so hard telling our students math applies to real life. And what could be more effective for conveying this point (at least to some seventh-graders) than a math question about football? Then the test writers screw up the question, reinforcing the stereotype of a chasm between scholarship and sports (”those mathematicians don’t know anything about football”).
To make matters worse, the state’s representative on these matters tells the public that a math question about football “has nothing to do with football.”
A more proper response would be, “boy, we really blew that one! Obviously, we need to tighten up our review process. We want students to see that math has real world application, so we’ll work harder from now on to ensure that the problems make sense in the real world.”
Ms. Bazemore will be hearing from me.
—Added Sunday afternoon—–
The more I’ve thought about this the more annoyed I’ve become. Look, nobody appreciates the beauty of math for its own sake more than I do. Quite honestly, my theory students often ding me for not showing them why its important to understand abstract models of computation.
But at least they’re college students. You certainly can’t present math solely in the abstract to seventh-graders (and it’s certainly not the way to assess them).
Math takes place in a context. The context provides constraints. To ignore those constraints is just bad math. The testers ignored the constraints of the football problem. The reviewers failed to catch this. The solution is not to dismiss the constraints when you’re caught.
Bad math. Bad public policy.