COMET • Vol. 7, No. 10 – 17 March 2006


(1) Raising the Floor: Progress and Setbacks in the Struggle for Quality Mathematics Education for All (Update)

Source: Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI)

A tentative agenda for the May 7-10 MSRI conference on equity in mathematics education has been posted at the above Web site. “Progress and Setbacks in the Struggle for Quality Mathematics Education for All” is being organized by Deborah Ball, Herb Clemens, Carlos Cabana, Ruth Cossey, Bob Megginson, and Bob Moses.

The intended audience–policy-makers, mathematics educators, mathematicians and teachers–is broadly inclusive. The only costs to attend this conference, which will be held in the new Simon’s Auditorium at MSRI in Berkeley, CA, are lodging and travel expenses; registration is free of charge.

Please note that this workshop requires everyone interesting in participating to submit an application, as space is limited. All applications will be reviewed, and invitations will be sent as space allows. Applications should be submitted by March 28.

(2) “Exit Exam Alternatives are Rejected” by Sarah Jane Tribble

Source: Contra Costa Times – 9 March 2006

On March 8, the California State Board of Education refused to recommend alternatives to the high school exit exam, meaning tens of thousands of seniors must pass the test for a diploma or hope the courts offer a reprieve.

State leaders have excused students in prior classes, but the 10-member board voted unanimously, except for one abstaining vote [by Joe Nuñez], to move forward without alternatives. Nearly 100,000 seniors had yet to pass the exam at the beginning of this school year, according to the most recent data available from the state.

“The key here is holding students accountable and making sure that students are mastering the skills for success in a career,” Superintendent Jack O’Connell said after the vote.

Critics bemoaned the lost chance to help students and charged during the public hearing Wednesday that the state failed to adequately explore alternatives for seniors who have not passed the test.

A class-action lawsuit filed in San Francisco Superior Court last month alleges that the state failed to properly prepare students for the test or research alternative ways to earn a diploma as mandated by state law…

The suit is the second legal challenge to the state’s exam. The first challenge, settled in late January, prompted lawmakers to grant a one-year exemption for special education students.

O’Connell said he was confident the state had adequately reviewed alternatives to the exam, including forming a panel that met 19 times between 1999 and 2001 and holding a public meeting in December that allowed advocates and opponents to comment.

Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, said the department had waited until the last minute to research alternatives and said an “injustice” had been done to parents and students…

Twenty-five states either offer or are developing an exit exam. Of those, only six, including California, offer no alternative to the exam for those seeking a diploma, according to the state Department of Education.

During a brief discussion by the board, member Don Fisher recommended against offering alternatives. He said that students on track to graduate should be able to pass the test. “It would be a travesty if they couldn’t,” he said…

The state’s exit exam measures English competency up to 10th-grade level and math ability up to beginning algebra. Students only have to answer a little more than half the questions correctly to pass and are offered up to six times to take it before graduation…

O’Connell said he wants the state to administer the test to seniors an additional time this summer, which would cost the state an estimated $3 million. He also said he hopes to offer a Saturday exam.

“They can always come back and take the test again and again,” he said, adding that students can also take it after they have attended community college. “Failure to obtain a high school diploma simply means your education is not complete.”

(3) Advanced Placement Test Fee Reimbursement

Source: California Department of Education
Contact: Sallie L. Wilson – – (916) 323-5765

Low-income students who are enrolled in an AP class and plan to take the end-of-course AP exam (or, upon teacher recommendation, students who have previously taken an AP class but not the exam) are eligible to receive assistance in paying AP test fees.

Visit the above Web site for important information and forms.  The online application will be available May 22, 2006. Funding requests from Local Educational Agencies are due July 14, 2006.


(1) Focus on Mathematics in Science-Technology Centers

Source: The Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC)

Founded in 1973, “the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) is an organization of science centers and museums [e.g., the Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley] dedicated to furthering public understanding of science among increasingly diverse audiences. ASTC encourages excellence and innovation in informal science learning by serving and linking its members worldwide and advancing their common goals.”

ASTC publishes a bimonthly journal, ASTC Dimensions, which “offers in-depth analysis on current issues, along with news briefs from ASTC and member museums, a calendar of events, and other resources for science centers and museums.”

The theme of the January/February 2006 issue of ASTC Dimensions was “Building Math Capacity.” The emphasis on increasing the mathematics focus within science museum exhibits and experiences is interesting and revealing. Several of the articles in this issue are available online at Excepts appear below:

(a) Let’s Replace Math Phobia with Math Appreciation” by Jaine Kopp, Director of the Bay Area Mathematics Project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley

As an advocate over the past 30 years for a mathematically literate society, I am disappointed that I still hear mathematics maligned by so many otherwise intelligent people. In my work with elementary school teachers, for example, too many report that they were “never any good at math” or that “math never made any sense.” Not only do they talk that way about their own math educations, they use their lack of understanding as an excuse to teach out of the textbook, with little thought about the lessons they present. Many find it easier to fall back on rules and procedures (“When dividing a fraction by another fraction, invert and multiply”) than to teach for conceptual understanding…

It will take a more collective social effort to change entrenched perceptions. A key element of that effort is the mathematics education our children receive. Because schools have the responsibility of helping students to acquire the math skills and tools they will need to approach and solve problems in real life, it is crucial that we support math educators. Science centers have the opportunity, through our teacher education programs, to create a positive image of mathematics and emphasize its importance. Let’s open the doors of our science centers to teachers, as well as to students and families, and invite everyone to be part of a new trend–math for all, and all for math!

(b) “Finding the Math: A Math Momentum Sampler” by Carolyn Sutterfield and the MMSC Teams

Participation in Math Momentum in Science Centers (MMSC), the 2003-2005 project led by TERC in collaboration with ASTC, required a major commitment from the 13 participating institutions. Over the course of three years, each chose an in-house math team, took part in professional development activities, worked to “find the math” in its existing programs and exhibits, hosted a math-related workshop open to other museums, and developed a project that reflected the institution’s new understanding of, and commitment to, the mathematical content of science. [This article contains a description of the challenges and awards of such a commitment experienced by four MMSC teams.]

(c) “Gearing Up for Math: Professional Development Builds Capacity” by DeAnna Beane

…As panelists in the 2005 ASTC Annual Conference session “Gearing Up for Mathematics in Science Centers: A View from the Top,” Elizabeth Stage and Eric Jolly highlighted the “mathematics achievement gap” and offered a compelling case for why U.S. science centers should be working with their communities toward a national goal of giving all children, particularly those from underserved populations, increased levels of proficiency in mathematics. Their charge to the field–delivered in a session devoted to strategies for introducing or enhancing mathematics experiences for staff–was a reminder of how much more remains to be done.

Seven years ago, prompted by the absence of mathematics in ASTC’s science-rich YouthALIVE! programs and by the 1997 report detailing the poor showing of U.S. secondary students in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), ASTC first invited conversations on the role of science centers in mathematics education. Those conversations led to the 2001 publication of Andrea Anderson’s Mathematics in Science Centers; to the formation of the Math Special Interest Group that meets annually at ASTC’s conference; and, ultimately, to ASTC’s participation from 2002 to 2005 in Building Math Momentum in Science Centers (MMSC), a three-year, National Science Foundation-funded, mathematics professional development project led by the education research and development organization TERC.

Although summative evaluation of MMSC is forthcoming, several lessons have already emerged for ASTC staff from the observations, interviews, and reflections of participating museum professionals, as well as from the “Gearing Up for Mathematics” session noted above. This article, based on those lessons, is grounded in the “can-do spirit” manifested by the 13 MMSC science centers….

Acknowledge Math Anxiety

Math anxiety cannot be ignored! This was the number-one institutional challenge identified by most staff and directors involved in the MMSC project. At their first workshops, professionals who felt quite comfortable developing engaging experiences in informal science did not necessarily exude confidence about their ability to address mathematics in similar ways.

In late 2005, when the teams were asked to reflect on their MMSC experiences, one team said that if they could start over, they would add another project layer in which the entire staff would learn and understand how much math (i.e., math education) has changed. Several others spoke of how helpful it was to observe visitors, other staff, volunteers, or children as they engaged in math exhibits and/or activities. An indication of their newfound confidence could be heard in the voices of the team that summed up its experience by saying, “Now math is in our minds and in the mind of our institution”–a conclusion echoed by others.

Encourage Interdepartmental Collaboration

Each of the MMSC institutions appointed a three-person, interdepartmental mathematics team for the project. Composition of the teams and participants’ previous math experience varied…

Team members were charged with finding appropriate ways of applying in their science centers what they were learning in the MMSC workshops. Specifically, they were to identify at least one science program or exhibit that could be “mathematized”–i.e., have its inherent mathematics made explicit…

Utilize External Resources

Some MMSC institutions drew on the mathematics resources of local engineers, volunteers, or universities–balancing that expertise by recruiting math educators from local school districts to brainstorm, review plans, clarify mathematics concepts, or determine the age-appropriateness of proposed exhibits or programs.

The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics developed by the (U.S.) National Council of Teachers of Mathematics provided a common language for dialogue between formal and informal educators… At the 2005 “Gearing Up for Mathematics” session, panelist Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics, assured her listeners that formal math educators would be “thrilled” to assist local science centers. Science provides a context for presenting mathematics in a way that is meaningful to kids, Gojak said, adding that the NCTM “Process Standards” (problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, connections, and representations) are tangible areas in which science centers can help students and classroom teachers.

Support ‘Mathematics Awareness’ from the Top

Mathematics cannot become a strategic priority in any science center or museum without the support of upper-level management. Only advocacy by a CEO and/or senior staff can ensure the creation of a “math culture.” Such a culture evolves through professional development that helps staff focus on math concepts and their applications for science centers and also fosters awareness of the larger context for this work. Mathematics standards, local mathematics curricula, and equity issues associated with local achievement gaps in mathematics are contextual issues that require attention as staff capacity grows…

One recommendation was to develop an exhibit and program design protocol that includes mathematics. If we are to broaden the pool of museum professionals who have the comfort and competence in mathematics to create and apply such tools effectively, top-level support for ongoing professional development is essential.

(2) “Score-Reporting Problems Create Credibility Issues for the College Board and Its Signature Test” by Elizabeth F. Farrell

SourceThe Chronicle of Higher Education -13 March 2006

The College Board’s miscalculation of 4,000 SAT scores affected a small portion of the 500,000 students who took the test in October, but the impact of the gaffe for both the College Board and its contractor, Pearson Educational Measurement, continued to grow late last week.

Lawyers began seeking out affected students as potential litigants, and admissions officials became more skeptical about the College Board’s credibility as a pattern of inconsistent information about the nature and extent of the SAT problem emerged…

Initially, the College Board had claimed that no score reports were miscalculated by more than 130 points, but on Wednesday, the association admitted that 16 students’ scores had been off by more than 200 points. At that point, College Board officials said that only a handful of the miscalculated score reports were falsely high. Late Friday afternoon, however, Brian O’Reilly, a spokesman for the association, said that 600 of the 4,000 students had received inflated scores.

Of those 600 students, 32 received scores that were 100 or more points higher, according to Mr. O’Reilly, and 83 percent of all affected test-takers had their scores adjusted by 20 to 40 points.

College Board officials said they would not provide admissions officials with a list of students whose scores were falsely high, a move that many admissions deans criticized as being unfair to other students. By contrast, the College Board did give colleges the names and revised scores of students whose scores were falsely low…

One key point of frustration for many admissions officials and critics of the SAT is the lack of a complete explanation from the College Board of how the error occurred. Late Thursday, Pearson Educational Measurement, the company responsible for scanning the SAT answer sheets, issued a news release stating that part of the reason for the error was “abnormally high moisture content” in some of the answer sheets.

This moisture caused the answer-sheet paper to expand, leading to inaccurate renditions of students’ answers during the scanning process. Every testing center in the United States sends the answer sheets via overnight mail to Pearson’s scanning warehouse in Austin, Texas. On the test day, torrential rain fell in some parts of the Northeast.

Another contributing factor was that some of the answer ovals were filled in lightly or incompletely, and were therefore unreadable by the scanner.

But David Hakensen, a spokesman for Pearson, said there were other, still undetermined, problems that contributed to the scanning error, and Pearson would continue to investigate. In a typical scanning of test answers, the results are 99.99965 percent accurate, he said.

Until now, Pearson has tested the accuracy of its scanning machines by embedding sample answer sheets into each batch of SAT tests that it scans. If the sample answer sheets are scanned correctly, the company assumes all answers are being scanned properly. Given the recent mistake, however, Mr. Hakensen said Pearson had developed extra safeguards, including software that checks the moisture content of answer sheets, to protect against a reoccurrence of the problem.

Pearson is a newcomer to the SAT scanning business: The company, which Mr. O’Reilly called the “industry leader,” began scanning SAT answer sheets in the spring of 2005, in conjunction with the introduction of the new and longer SAT…

(3) And Baby Counts Three…

Source: National Science Foundation – 15 February 2006

In a study that could shed light on how infants first grasp the concept of number–as well as the evolutionary origins of that ability–researchers have found evidence that babies have an abstract numerical sense even before they learn to talk.

Duke University scientists Kerry Jordan and Elizabeth Brannon published their findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research was sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, and the John Merck Fund.

Jordan and Brannon presented seven-month-old infants with the voices of two or three women saying, “Look.” At the same time, they showed the babies two video images: one with two women saying the word and the other with three women doing so. The researchers found that the babies spent significantly more time looking at the video image that matched the number of women talking. From that, the researchers concluded that the infants were transferring their perception of number across two different senses, sight and sound–which suggested, in turn, that babies have a truly abstract sense of numerical concepts.

In earlier work, Jordan and Brannon performed similar tests on monkeys, which also seem to exhibit numerical perception across senses.

“As a result of our experiments, we conclude that the babies are showing an internal representation of ‘two-ness’ or ‘three-ness’ that is separate from sensory modalities and, thus, reflects an abstract internal process,” said Brannon. “These results support the idea that there is a shared system between preverbal infants and nonverbal animals for representing numbers.”

(4) Neuroscience in the News

Source: Society for Neuroscience

One of the goals of the Society for Neuroscience is “education about the latest advances in brain research.” The Society’s Web site includes “Neuroscience in the News,” a page with links to news reports from the past week. Research findings on learning and memory are often included in the weekly compilation.

(5) Brain Facts–Free Book Offered by the Society for Neuroscience

Source: Society for Neuroscience

Brain Facts is a 64-page primer on the brain and nervous system, published by the Society for Neuroscience. The 2005 edition updates all sections and includes new information on brain development, addiction, neurological and psychiatric illnesses and potential therapies.

In addition to serving as a starting point for a lay audience interested in neuroscience, the book is used at the annual Brain Bee, which is held in conjunction with Brain Awareness Week, which is being celebrated this week (see for resources).

Brain Facts is available now in PDF format: Print copies of Brain Facts are available free of charge. Visit to request a copy.