COMET • Vol. 2, No. 08 – 5 March 2001


(1) “Future Uncertain for School Exit Test” by Kate Folmar

Source: San Jose Mercury News – 4 March 2001

As thousands of California students ready for what could be the most important test of their young lives on Wednesday, nervous questions are bound to arise. How hard will it be? Am I prepared? Could it really keep me from earning a diploma?

Lately, though, another query persists: Will California’s pressure-packed high school exit exam even count, or will it be merely a trial run?

Even state lawmakers, policy wonks and educators can’t answer that one just days before as many as 450,000 freshmen statewide cram gyms, auditoriums and classrooms for the first session of the two-part exit exam on Wednesday…

The specter of possible lawsuits has prompted legislators to go back and forth about whether this year’s exam should be a pass-fail proposition or a dry run. What’s more, some lawmakers want to push back by a year the date when the test means the difference between graduating or not. The governor has said it’s premature to consider delaying the test.

Nonetheless, most school districts are strongly encouraging ninth-graders to take the voluntary test, unless their parents request otherwise. That way, freshmen can get exposure to the test, and teachers and principals can learn their students’ strengths and weaknesses on the test.

As things stand now, the class of 2004–today’s freshmen–will get up to eight chances to pass the test or risk their diplomas…

Around the state, schools also are sprouting Saturday academies, adding tutorial programs and encouraging all teachers, even gym teachers, to pepper reading and math into their lessons…

Originally, the test was supposed to be a pass-fail proposition for freshmen who volunteered to take the exit exam this month. If students passed both the math and English sections, they would have been off the hook and on schedule to get a diploma in 2004.

However, evaluators hired to examine the exit exam for Gov. Gray Davis and the California Department of Education raised concerns that the test could be vulnerable to lawsuits if passing and failing marks were set this year based on the scores of a sample of student volunteers, presumably motivated students who might not reflect the state’s diverse student body.

So the governor proposed to make this year’s test a trial run for ninth-graders, with all of them required to take the exit exam in 10th grade next year, at which point passing and failing scores would be determined.

But the urgency legislation intended to make the test a trial run this year, SB 84, stumbled for lack of votes in the California Senate last week…

(2) “High School Exit Exam Left in Limbo by Senate” by Martha Groves and Carl Ingram

Source: Los Angeles Times – 2 March 2001

The status of the state’s high school exit exam was thrown into limbo Thursday when state Senate Republicans voted down a key piece of legislation supported by Gov. Gray Davis.

As a result, ninth-graders preparing to take the two-part test March 7 and 13 still don’t know whether it will be a trial run or the real thing.

The failed legislation would have made the upcoming version a voluntary practice test for this year’s ninth-graders. It would have modified the original 1999 law, which requires all high school seniors graduating in 2004 and beyond to pass an exit test that they may begin taking as ninth-graders.

Republicans argued that accountability in schools is overdue and that testing should not be delayed.

The issue is not dead, however. Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), the bill’s author, got permission Thursday to have the bill reconsidered Monday…

The exam will cover standards through first-year algebra and reading and writing standards through the 10th grade. Starting in the 10th grade, when the test becomes mandatory, students will have several chances to pass during their high school years. Those who don’t pass cannot receive their diplomas.

Educators and administrators expressed frustration at the legal wrangling over the testing bill, SB 84…

On Thursday, the O’Connell bill making the test a practice exercise sailed out of the Assembly without debate on a bipartisan 66-0 vote. But in the Senate, the bill ran into a Republican roadblock and failed.

The bill required at least 27 votes in the 40-member Senate to send it to Davis for his expected signature. As an “urgency” bill, it would become law as soon as he signed it.

But it got only 20 favorable votes, all cast by Democrats, whose ranks were depleted by absentees. A frustrated O’Connell told the Senate that the bill must be passed to “protect these tests from potential legal challenges, and it needs to pass today.”

But Republicans attacked it as an attempt to paper over alleged failings of the state education department and the public school system…

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) contended that minority Republicans apparently had a newly found belief that Davis, a Democrat, might be politically vulnerable on the exit exam issue and were seeking to exploit that.

“If you want to stick it to the governor, why don’t you do it in a way that is not sticking it to kids?” Burton asked.



(1) “MCAS Foes Join Forces To Oppose Controversial Exam” by Heidi B. Perlman

Source: Boston Globe – 4 March 2001

Teacher, parent and student foes of the state’s high-stakes assessment test are joining forces to oppose the exam’s use as a graduation requirement.

Though the MCAS exam has long had its share of opponents, members of the ”Alliance for High Standards, NOT High Stakes” say the group aims unite all critics into a wide-reaching, single coalition.

Leaders were expected to launch the group Monday, minutes before more than 40 MCAS-related bills [see] were scheduled to be heard at a daylong hearing at the Statehouse, but the hearing was postponed because of the weather.

”We want to present a united front,” said Ruth Kaplan, chairwoman of the Brookline chapter of the Coalition for Authentic Reform of Education (CARE). ”We know we have an uphill battle and we’re trying to be as strong as possible.”

The group’s formation comes just one week after business leaders representing some 12,000 companies across the state created Business for Better Schools, an umbrella organization aimed at garnering support for the controversial exam.

Critics of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam say using the test as a graduation requirement is unfair to students. Proponents say students will not take the test seriously until consequences are attached, and insist the high stakes remain untouched. The class of 2003 this year’s sophomore class will be the first required to pass the exam in order to graduate…

More than 25 organizations make up [the newly formed anti-MCAS group], including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Student Coalition for Alternatives to MCAS. Members of the different organizations include teachers, parents, lobbyists and community groups from around the state.

After their announcement, Business for Better Schools kicked off a costly pro-MCAS ad campaign. Testing foes said they plan to take the low-cost method, and lobby legislators to speak against, or at least delay, using attaching high stakes to the test.

”Businesses may have the money, but we have the people and the power,” said Sumner Kaplan, president of the New England region of the American Jewish Congress. ”The masses of the public are totally against this type of test. Using it for a diagnostic tool is all right, but having one’s future depend on it is just totally unfair.”

Board of Education chairman James Peyser said he is not surprised the MCAS foes have united, but said he hopes legislators will leave the testing program alone at least for now. The state won’t have true test results until students take the MCAS this spring, knowing the results will count against them, he said.

”I want to make sure we don’t preemptively shut down this process before it’s had a chance to start,” he said.

(2) “Singapore Plan” by Laura Pappano

Source: Boston Globe – 4 March 2001

It wasn’t enough for Bob Hogan’s fifth-graders at Ashby Elementary School to know five of 20 people in class had seven letters in their last name. It wasn’t enough to say ”five-twentieths” or simplified, ”one-fourth.”

Nope. Hogan wanted it expressed as a decimal (.25), a percentage (25 percent), and a ratio (1:4). Nor was it enough that students did conversions in their heads. Hogan wanted to hear how they did it – and another way to get the same answer. And when that was done, ”now give me an explanation using money,” Hogan said.

Money, decimals, percentages, ratios, fractions – all in the space of a few minutes. Logical as it seems, in traditional American math texts these concepts inhabit different chapters – and rarely meet.

But Hogan’s students aren’t doing American math, they’re doing Singapore Math.

The curriculum, developed by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, earned Singapore students the top math scores on the Third Inter-national Mathematics and Science Study while American students scored near the bottom of the 41-country comparison.

If it works for them, why can’t it work for us?

That thinking led Mary Waight, associate superintendent for curriculum for the North Middlesex Regional School District, which includes Ashby, Townsend, and Pepperell, to pilot Singapore Math in five classes in grades 5 through 8.

Hard data won’t be available until this spring, but early reports on the challenging curriculum are driving the district to rethink its approach to math.

”When you see them teaching concepts to students that we thought this population couldn’t handle, it’s clear that students are more capable of higher math learning at a younger age,” said Waight. The district is enrolling all seventh-graders in pre-algebra and all eighth-graders in algebra next year – not just the elite 25 to 35 percent of students typically selected. And teachers in younger grades are studying ways to use Singapore Math to introduce tough math concepts earlier.

So what is it about Singapore Math that’s so revolutionary?

Most noticeable: The curriculum expects students to master skills and then put them to use.

By contrast, many American math courses use a spiral approach, returning year after year to the same units – just with longer digits – believing that if you teach a concept enough times, students will eventually get it. In fact, some students simply get turned off.

The Singapore Math curriculum also requires students to apply several math concepts in a single, multi-step problem. This means students are applying all their math skills all the time. American texts tend to call on skills only within a particular unit – asking, for example, only fractions problems in the fractions chapter.

”A lot of math textbooks are designed so you will spend weeks doing review,” said Richard Bisk, math professor at Fitchburg State College, who is overseeing the pilot.

In Singapore Math, he said, ”instead of reteaching fractions, when you have problem-solving questions, they will assume the knowledge of fractions.”

Several students in Hogan’s class said Singapore Math is harder, but using several skills at once helps math make sense.

”I know this is an oxymoron or something, but being harder makes it easier,” said Gregory Tacconi-Moore, 11. ”I think we’ve got all this immense knowledge at the back of our heads. Singapore makes you pull it out from the back and put it in front so you are using it more.”

Despite such raves, there are concerns. Some complain about the cultural orientation – word problems use foreign fruits and Asian surnames – and Singapore Math only uses the metric system. The curriculum also doesn’t teach probability, Bisk said, which Massachusetts standards require middle school students to learn.

Bisk, Waight, and other educators, though, have a more troubling concern: Can teachers without a strong math background handle the program? With the current teacher shortage and a particular dearth of teachers with math training, Singapore Math may be too tough for many to teach.

Nonetheless, Singapore Math is attracting attention. Even as it remains new and unorthodox – the inexpensive curriculum books are sold through a mom and pop Web site based in Oregon – a handful of schools nationwide are trying it.

Nora Flood, director of studies and math teacher at the Madison Country Day School in Madison, Wis., has been using Singapore Math for four years.

Flood said results at her school bear out that students really understand math, are more confident, and enjoy it…

Hogan, who has taught fifth grade for five years, also insists he is seeing results. This year, he said, students already have covered – and understand – concepts previous students didn’t reach until June. And, perhaps most critical, Hogan sees enthusiasm for math.

”Class participation is greater than I’ve seen. Kids are not as apprehensive. There is a lot more homework completion,” he said. ”While I would never say everybody in the class likes math, I do think a majority of the students enjoy math class’…

(3) “Adding it Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics” by the National Research Council


The pre-publication version of this report [see for more information about Adding it Up] is now available online at the address above. Chapters include the following: “Looking at Mathematics and Learning,” “The State of School Mathematics in the United States,” “Number: What is There to Know?” “The Strands of Mathematical Proficiency,” “The Mathematical Knowledge Children Bring to School,” “Developing Proficiency with Whole Numbers,” “Developing Proficiency with Other Numbers,” “Developing Mathematical Proficiency Beyond Number,” “Teaching for Mathematical Proficiency,” and “Developing Proficiency in Teaching Mathematics,” followed by “Conclusions and Recommendations.”

(4) “Presidential Views: Interview with Hyman Bass”

Source: Notices of the AMS March 2001

Every other year, when a new AMS [American Mathematical Society] president takes office, the Notices publishes interviews with the current president and with the president elect. What follows is an edited version of an interview with AMS president Hyman Bass, whose term began on February 1, 2001. The interview was conducted in October 2000 by Noticessenior writer and deputy editor Allyn Jackson…

Notices: You mentioned earlier your involvement in education. What is the AMS role in K-12 education?

Bass: This is an area in which the AMS did not organizationally decide to move but in some sense was gradually moved into it by external developments, developments that reflect the broader growth of our professional community.

Historically, mathematicians’ involvement in K-12 education was usually seen as episodic. Certain mathematicians chose to turn their interests and reflections in those directions, just as mathematicians might become interested in philosophy or poetry or music. Interest in education was not treated as a movement in the field, but as something congenial with it. Those efforts were hospitably received in the mathematical community and were treated as a wholesome part of the general culture, but not as central to it.

The situation is quite different now, but not because of change of individual interest or concern. A lot of it has to do with the whole interlocking dynamics of expansion of the field…

In the post-Sputnik era what the country needed was a cadre of highly trained technical professionals, and our system developed a very high capacity to produce that. Many people failed and many were alienated or driven away from mathematics and science in the process, but that was considered okay, because the number of people that got through the filter was enough to meet national needs.

What we used to accomplish for a limited number of students we now must accomplish for nearly all students, without sacrificing quality levels. We need to be attentive to the ways in which the discipline has changed, to the presence of technology, to appropriate ways of presenting mathematical ideas in the classroom, and to contemporary understanding of instruction and student learning. This places great new demands on teachers. The country has undertaken to solve a problem it never has faced before–that is, to help all students attain high levels of mathematical proficiency.

One of the first things you have to do when you think about education is to decide what are the goals, what do you want people to learn? In the U.S. this is a matter for states and districts, sometimes even individual schools. Never in our nation’s history have goals been articulated and shared at the national level. So the NCTM [National Council of Teachers of Mathematics] stepped into this policy vacuum. The standards NCTM created [in 1989] were based in part on a combination of educational research and the views of some disciplinary mathematicians, but largely also on the wisdom of practice and the knowledge base of professional practitioners. In my view, it was a positive event that the standards were developed by the professional organization of practicing teachers.

Creating standards is the first and the easiest step in this business. The next step is curriculum development, which is complex design work. The NSF funded many projects to develop curricula based on the NCTM standards. Starting in the mid1990s, these curricula began entering schools. That was the first time this whole movement began to touch people’s lives on a significant scale. This precipitated pockets of adverse reaction from parents, whose kids returned with homework that the parents sometimes did not know how to do or even recognize. And mathematicians are among parents. It was this concern with their children’s’ schooling that first turned the attention of certain mathematicians toward school mathematics education.

When mathematicians first got vivid exposure to what was happening in the schools, many of them were outraged. For some it was a perceived neglect of “basic skills,” generally understood to be the teaching of standard algorithms. This was often attributed to the early introduction of technology into the classrooms. As they looked closer they were often alarmed by the seemingly fragile mathematical understanding of the teachers. It’s not as if these concerns were without cause. But the question is, What do you do with what you see? We can’t invent solutions that pretend that the teachers we have are not there and that some ideal community of teachers is suddenly going to appear. The teachers in the schools are not dumb or stupid and stubborn. They are actually very dedicated people who love what they do. In most cases they wouldn’t be there otherwise, because there are very few incentives. Most of them are actually quite smart and able to learn things. But they have had long experience with subject matter and with kids that is very different from mathematicians’ experience. Teachers are very realistic and have a real sense of survival and pragmatism, and if they feel that mathematicians are people who are going to scorn them or humiliate them, they become defensive and will not view mathematicians as a source of help. That kind of thing has happened. The mathematicians see themselves as kind of intellectual philanthropists and believe the teachers do not want to receive the wisdom they’re ready to offer. So there is a lot of that kind of alienation. I think that that’s much of what the “math wars” are about.

I personally think the NCTM has achieved a great deal, and I think that the new PSSM [Principles and Standards for School Mathematics] document is an extraordinary achievement that has been well informed by the advice that was sought from other professional communities. The NCTM has made serious and bona fide efforts to ground its policy documents in whatever research is available and in solicited advice from other professional communities. I think that a sensible and constructive way to make improvements is to improve, the way the NCTM functions. We can’t invent solutions to these educational problems that ignore the professional community of teachers. The rhetoric of mathematicians who publicly protest every single fault and detail in everything the NCTM does is simply not doing the work that’s going to move us forward. The NCTM has demonstrated that it can productively accommodate constructively rendered criticism.

So finally let me answer your question. The question was, What does K-12 education have to do with the AMS? What I’ve described so far are ways in which individual mathematicians have been drawn into this. On the national level–and this is now public policy and part of legislation– it has been recognized that this is a national problem and that, in particular, mathematicians and scientists have a special responsibility that extends their traditional roles in research and education at the university level to concerns for K-12. This responsibility has taken concrete form in many funding programs. There is also the growing recognition of the fact that the teachers who teach in the schools and whose knowledge of mathematics we deride so much learned their mathematics primarily in mathematics departments. Therefore there is a kind of structural responsibility, even at the university level, to giving more attention to this. So for those various external reasons, the professional community of mathematicians and therefore the AMS–because it is the organization of that community–has an inherent interest in K-12 education issues…