COMET • Vol. 1, No. 23 – 11 September 2000


“State Board Approves Test for High School Diploma” by Jennifer Kerr

Source: Sacramento Bee – 7 September 2000
[San Diego Union Tribune clip:]

Many of today’s ninth-grade students will sharpen their No. 2 pencils this spring … trying out a new graduation test they will have to pass to get a California diploma.

It will include essay questions, algebra without calculators, and it won’t have a time limit. [The test will look something like this: 100 multiple-choice questions in mathematics, including first-year algebra; 100 multiple-choice questions in English, including ones from reading passages; two writing samples. It should take four to six hours, but won’t have a time limit. -Source: SDUT]

The state Board of Education, by a 7-0 vote in Sacramento Thursday, approved the test, which is being developed by a national research company amid lingering concerns that many California high schoolers aren’t yet being taught the material it will cover.

It “ratchets up expectations for student achievement in this state,” said James Brown, superintendent of Glendale Unified School District and co-chairman of the advisory committee for the test.

Gov. Gray Davis proposed the new graduation exam when he took office last year as part of his school-improvement package. The Legislature approved it a few months later.

State education officials, however, were not given much time to create, approve and field-test such an important exam.

The class of 2004 — today’s ninth-graders — will be the first required to pass the test to graduate. The law says they must be allowed to try it in ninth grade and must take it starting in 10th grade. They will be allowed to keep retaking it if they don’t pass.

Because the new exam will be given for the first time next spring on a voluntary basis, it had to be approved by the state board by Oct. 1. The board will not determine the passing grade until January at the earliest.

The test is being developed by American Institutes of Research, headquartered in Washington, D.C., with an office in Palo Alto. It was chosen by the state Department of Education in January after it and three other testing companies submitted informal proposals. When the state formally requested bids to develop the test last November, seven companies declined to submit them, saying California was requiring too much and offering too little.

Brown said the advisory committee decided to test students on the state’s standards for English and math at the 10th-grade level, including algebra. Those standards, outlining what students should learn each year in every subject, were approved by the state board several years ago, but are not mandatory for local school districts. Many committee members would have liked to include geometry, statistics and probability, but felt that would not be fair, he said.

“It is not fundamentally fair to test students on something they have not been taught, especially in a high-stakes test,” Brown said. “We did feel it was very important for algebra to be on the exam.”

Currently, the state requires high school students to take two years of math to graduate, but does not specify algebra. Many districts do require algebra, but an estimated third of current graduates never take it. A bill sent to Davis by the Legislature last week would add the subject to the state’s graduation requirements beginning with the class of 2004.

Court cases challenging high school graduation tests in Florida and Texas have declared that students must have an “opportunity to learn,” meaning they must have been taught material that’s on such a high-stakes test, said Susan Phillips, a testing consultant and former Michigan State University professor.

Ann Smisko, the testing director for the state of Texas, told the board her state started with a high school test in the 1980s that was not required for graduation and has gradually toughened the test and made it a requirement. But first, she stressed, the state made sure the schools were teaching the material being tested. Texas is now working on a new version that will include geometry, biology, chemistry and physics, she added.

Brown told the board that many of California’s nearly 1,000 local school districts are using the state standards for elementary grades, but it’s harder to get middle and high schools to adopt them.

“Working with high schools is more difficult. It’s like moving a cemetery. It’s not easy to change something,” Brown said.


(1) “Math & Science Expert Panel Recognize Two Additional Math Programs”

Source: on the NCSM listserv – 8 September 2000

The U.S. Department of Education and the Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education have identified two more “promising” mathematics programs, in addition to those recognized in October 1999.

The two new programs recently recognized as promising are “I CAN Learn and Growing With Mathematics.” “I CAN Learn” is a computerized algebra curriculum program designed primarily to help ethnically diverse, inner city students in grades 7-10 achieve equity in higher level mathematics and thinking skills. Student proficiency in problem-solving is a primary goal. “Growing With Mathematics” is an activity-based, integrated, and problem-solving approach to learning mathematics for students in grades K-5. The program incorporates computation and skill development as a major component, thus maintaining a balance between concepts and skills.

The purpose of the Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education is to oversee a valid and viable process for identifying and designating promising and exemplary programs in mathematics and science so that practitioners can make better-informed decisions in their ongoing efforts to improve the quality of student learning in mathematics and science. Last year, the Panel identified ten mathematics curriculum programs as either promising or exemplary. The publication, “Exemplary & Promising Mathematics Programs,” describes those ten programs in detail, as well as the expert panel system and the evaluation criteria used by the panel.

Detailed information about “I CAN Learn” and “Growing With Mathematics” is available online at

To learn more about the Expert Panel on Mathematics and Science Education, visit their Web site at

“Exemplary & Promising Mathematics Programs” is available online at the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse web site at,1341,CDS-000496-496,00.shtm

(2) “Students Show Few Gains in Reading Skills” by Jodi Wilgoren

Source: New York Times – 6 September 2000

Despite years of efforts to improve education, American students today read no better than their predecessors a generation ago, and their basic math skills have advanced only slightly, according to a new analysis of standardized tests given since the early 1970’s.

While students have shown steady and significant improvement in the 1990’s on a new math test designed to measure problem-solving techniques and geometry, the study shows, they have posted smaller gains on a more traditional examination that emphasizes arithmetic, fractions, decimals and percentages. Judging by those basic skills, today’s 9- and 13-year- olds probably know as much mathematics as 10- and 14-year-olds in 1973, the study finds…

“Clearly, the story is not one of disastrous decline,” said the study, which was conducted by Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on American Education at the Brookings Institution. “Nor is it cause for national celebration”…

The first of five annual reports planned on the National Assessment of Educational Progress — a set of tests known as the nation’s report card — the study did not present new data, but offered fresh analysis…

The report also said that fourth graders who said they used a calculator every day had the lowest math test scores, and that black and Hispanic children were far more likely to rely on calculators than white and Asian students. Generally, math gains were highest among fourth graders, and dropped off for middle- and high-school students.

One section of the report focuses on the two math tests and raises questions about why scores on one are rising far more quickly than on the other. The newer examination, known as the “main” test, reflects curriculums that have flourished during the decade, and allows students to use calculators on some problems and receive partial credit for work done on wrong answers. The older, “trend” test is a multiple- choice examination of basic skills.

Looking at specific sections of the older test, Mr. Loveless found that students have improved their performance in geometry, problem- solving, data analysis and algebra, but lost ground on fractions, decimals, and multiplication and subtraction of whole numbers.

Mr. Loveless said having two math tests, with different results, confuses the public — and researchers. He questioned whether the gains on the main test reflected real progress in math or simply an alignment between the test material and curriculums, and he expressed concern that there had not been a parallel rise in the trend test scores.

Jane Hannaway, director of the Education Policy Center at the Urban Institution in Washington, interpreted some of the math results as good news.

“It shows we really can influence what kids are learning with curriculum policies,” Ms. Hannaway said. “We’ve been doing more of that new math and kids are learning it. We know how to teach basic skills. That’s a very easy area to remedy. But we didn’t know we knew how to teach problem solving.”

Sharif Shakrani, deputy executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board — which administers the N.A.E.P. tests — said the newer test “tells us more about the relevant mathematics.”

“If we want to find out whether our students are competitive and whether they are learning the math they would need to enter the world of science and technology and information, then we need to look at the main math” test, Mr. Shakrani said.

(3)  “Do Good Scores Mean Learning?” Lesley Stahl reports on ’60 Minutes’ (10 September 2000)


Many Texas teachers say the state’s higher school test scores touted by Governor George W. Bush in the presidential campaign are not a “Texas Miracle.”

The teachers tell Correspondent Lesley Stahl that scores are rising because kids have become good test takers, not good students…

The teachers, who work in the Houston area, tell Stahl their students don’t have the comprehensive skills they should because teachers are pressured to emphasize preparing for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test rather than traditional subjects like social studies and science.

“We do a wonderful product as far as the TAAS test and the format is concerned,” says fourth-grade teacher Sherrie Matula. “But branch off into anything else or tell them they must write in a complete sentence the answer to a question….They look at you like you’re a blank.”

Nanette Bishop, who teaches sixth grade, is frustrated by the testing emphasis. “I’ve gone to school to be a professional teacher….I know what I need to do for my kids, and yet, people keep taking that away from me,” she tells Stahl.

Most Texas teachers seem to agree with Hansen and Matula.

In a recent survey, only 27 percent of them thought that rising TAAS scores reflected real gains in learning. But Houston’s school superintendent, Rod Paige, disagrees. “I don’t think you can do well on the test by simply knowing how to take the test. You must know the content. The gains are real,…the product of very hard work,” says Paige.

Real or artificial, the gains Bush has been quoting are spectacular. Eighty percent of the Texas students who took TAAS this year passed, up from just 50 percent in 1994. Minorities have especially improved; more than twice as many black students passed TAAS in 2000 than in 1994.

But it all comes at a price, says a Rice University education professor, Linda McNeil, who says one high school in Houston doesn’t have a library, but spent nearly $20,000 on TAAS preparatory materials. “We have kids, including at the high school level, who can pass the test,” McNeil tells Stahl. “But then their teachers call and say, ‘Our kids can’t read…an English lesson…[or] their science books.'”

(4)  “Too Hard? Too Easy? Just Right?” by Linda Cagnetti

SourceCincinnati Enquirer – 10 September 2000

From schoolhouse to statehouse, Ohio’s fourth-grade proficiency tests are causing a ruckus. Educators, politicians, business people, advocacy groups, parents and test “experts” are all joining the debate with different opinions.

Among the protests: The test is too difficult or unfair. It doesn’t measure the right stuff or does it the wrong way. It’s too long, too vague or too concrete. It’s too much pressure on kids, and on teachers, etc.

Criticism skyrocketed after the General Assembly raised the stakes with a new “reading guarantee.” Beginning in the 2001-2002 school year, all fourth-graders must pass the reading part of the five-section proficiency test before they’re promoted to fifth grade. Last year, more than 40 percent of Ohio’s fourth-graders failed the reading test.

Schools are scrambling to fine-tune curriculum, adding tutors, summer classes, extra training and more to help students and teachers.

Groups are pressuring the governor, legislators and other state officials to dump or change the test. They want Ohio to outlaw or soften the “high-stakes” rule. Gov. Bob Taft has a commission to study all Ohio proficiency tests and other possibilities. Meanwhile, the fight over tests of all kinds is an escalating national one…

Thanks to the Ohio Supreme Court, the complete past-year tests, scoring guides and more information about all proficiency tests are now open to the public at the Ohio Department of Education Website [].

Sample fourth-grade test questions:…

3. Which number is equal to four hundreds and nine tens? A. 49 B. 409 C. 490 4. Subtract. 50.0 – 4.7 = A. 0.3 B. 1.7 C. 45.3

6. A flea can jump 130 times its own height. If you could do the same thing, and your height is 54 inches, how high could you jump? A. 130 x 54 B. 130 – 54 C. 130 + 54

(5) “Virginia Poll Gives SOLs Vote of No Confidence” by Jay Mathews and Victoria Benning

Source: Washington Post – 11 September 2000

…Negative views on Virginia’s Standards of Learning exams are widespread, according to a Washington Post poll. In the survey of 1,031 registered Virginia voters, 51 percent of the respondents said the SOL testing program “is not working,” while 34 percent said the program “is working” and the rest gave no opinion.

Asked what should be done about the tests, 43 percent said they should be substantially changed, 24 percent said they should be continued as is, and 21 percent wanted them to be “ended entirely.”

In follow-up interviews with Post reporters, poll respondents who disliked the testing program said the fact-based exams force teachers and students to spend a lot of time on boring drills and quizzes. Some said the tests are simply too hard. Others said the problem isn’t the tests themselves, but the state’s requirement that students pass the exams in order to graduate and that schools meet certain test-score targets or lose their accreditation…

Poll respondents who support the SOLs said the tests are helping students learn more and are ensuring consistency in the curriculum taught throughout the state. They also said that without such tests to verify academic skills, many students will continue to graduate from high school unprepared for college or the job market…

The SOL tests, first administered in 1998, are given each spring to students in grades three, five and eight and in high school. They cover English, math, science and social studies. Starting in 2004, students will have to pass at least six of the high school tests to graduate. And starting in 2007, schools will lose their accreditation if fewer than 70 percent of their students have passed the exams….

Various national polls have found that the public is conflicted on the issue of standardized testing. Although there is strong support for administering tests to measure what children are learning and to judge school performance, surveys also have found that parents are concerned about their schools becoming too test-oriented.

“People like to hear that tests are being given, that teachers and schools are being held accountable. What they react negatively to are hearing things like ‘teachers teaching to the tests,’ ” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States…

(6) “Yours Is Not To Reason Why” by Anne M. Collins

Source: Education Week – 6 September 2000

In Massachusetts last spring, more than 100 mathematics educators crammed into a standing-room-only meeting of the state board of education to weigh in on the state’s proposed new mathematics standards. Some of them carried placards. Others delivered impassioned testimony. News reporters furiously scribbled notes, but several confided that they didn’t really understand what the furor was about. What did the teachers mean when they said that these new standards favored memorization over “deep understanding”? Why do many educators continue to be concerned about the revised version of the new standards (known as the Mathematics Curriculum Framework), which were adopted by the board in July?

One way to understand what is at stake is to view it through the eyes of Ken, my neighbor’s 6th grade son.

Ken had received a perfect score on a geometry test. He had successfully found the area of a series of geometric figures for which he had been given the appropriate formulas. When Ken’s mom asked him to explain what he had done, however, he was only able to explain that you use the numbers that are given, put them into the formulas that are given, and multiply. What he could not do was answer why he was doing that, what it meant, and what would happen if he hadn’t been given the formula or the numbers to multiply. From Ken’s perspective, all he had to do was to get the right answer. Wasn’t that enough?…

When I asked Ken to explain what he was supposed to do, he clearly articulated the need to find the area of the given geometric figures. He explained that he knew that “area” meant the space inside the figure, but that was as much as he could tell me. He could not explain why he used a particular formula for a particular figure, or why the formula for the triangle was one- half the area formula used for finding the area of the rectangle. Was that important? I think so.

I first asked Ken to find the area of a rectangle drawn on centimeter graph paper. Ken counted the square centimeters. When asked if there was another way to figure the area, he said he could multiply the length times the width.

Next, I asked Ken to show me how he could find the area of a parallelogram also drawn on graph paper. He asked to use a pair of scissors. He cut off one triangular piece and taped it to the opposite side to form a rectangle. At that point, he quickly recognized he could use the “length times width” formula again. When working with the triangles, he first drew a rectangle around the right triangle and immediately stated that it looked like half of the rectangle. He counted the square centimeters to be sure his observation was correct. His guided explorations continued for each figure, and he successfully made sense of what the formulas meant.

What does this all mean?

Does it matter that Ken now understands the concept of area? I think so. Certainly, Ken could have succeeded in a traditional middle-grades math program, plugging the numbers into formulas memorized for a test. But, at some point, his lack of understanding would come back to haunt him.

Ken returned home from our tutoring session with two surprises for his mom. The first was that he could explain exactly how each of the area formulas he had used correctly on his test had a relationship to each of the geometric figures. The second was his renewed enthusiasm for learning math.

The lessons I used with Ken are the same lessons used so successfully with my middle school students in the Connected Mathematics Project, a program that emphasizes student understanding of concepts as well as the development and use of efficient strategies for arriving at the correct answers.

Mathematics education in Massachusetts will suffer if districts drop successful programs–such as Connected Mathematics–that achieve a balance between understanding and computation.

This means a lot to educators. It is much more gratifying to help Ken understand and enjoy mathematics than to help him memorize formulas for a standardized test. It is better for Ken, too. After all, real-world problems do not appear as multiple-choice questions, but as complex situations that must be understood, analyzed, torn apart, and ultimately solved.

(7) “Go Figure, with Rigor” from ExxonMobil (31 August 2000)

Source: National Alliance of State Science & Mathematics Coalitions (NBS#397)

In an advertorial in the New York Times, ExxonMobil declares its support for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards for math education. The recent clarifications to the 10-year-old standards “make a good idea better, because the standards have already demonstrated some gains,” according to ExxonMobil. The standards call for schools to establish curricula that provide both basic math and problem-solving skills. They support rigorous education of math teachers, and encourage the teaching of math in ways that develop mathematical understanding for all students.

ExxonMobil points to evidence of the standards’ effectiveness. Between 1990 and 1996, math proficiency as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased by about one grade level at grades 4, 8 and 12. National average math scores on the SAT rose from 500 in 1991 to 512 in 1998. And the four states with standards and assessments that most closely mirror NCTM’s recommendations have shown the greatest gains in mathematics scores.

ExxonMobil calls upon states to accept the NCTM standards and develop more rigorous math programs. “It is essential that all students be given preparation for the challenges and opportunities this trend presents,” the company concludes.


Get Free Legislative E-Mail updates from NCTM

Source: NCTM News Bulletin (September 2000; Vol. 37 (2), p. 7)

Approximately once a week while Congress is in session, you can receive e-mails updating you on the status of legislative activities related to mathematics education. The update will also cover Department of Education, grant, and other policy news about mathematics education. To sign up, send an e-mail to In the body of the e-mail, please include your e-mail address and name, the grade you teach or your teaching specialty, and your state.