Sunday, June 24, 2007

First-time college students lack basic math skills

The basic math college dilemma
By: Danielle Portteus,, story here

In his five years of teaching college students, Vinnie Maltese has come to a conclusion: First-time college students do not have basic math skills.

Mr. Maltese is not alone. His opinions match the findings of a
survey conducted by ACT.

More excerpts that really shouldn't surprise you....

"I found quite a few students understand difficult mathematical concepts, but their algebra skills were so poor, they couldn't physically do the work," he said. "Algebra skills come with practice and lots of homework problems."

"Students should understand basic arithmetic- addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, fractions," he said. "And have a good grasp of basic algebra such as expressions, equations and inequalities."

"In college, students are expected to think on their own and they can't. I tend to think kids should master basic math skills, otherwise they will always be reaching for a crutch."

Nothing new here. Sad as that is, we've been round this merry-go-round before.

I just don't understand how anyone in their right mind can debate that mastering basic arithmetic and higher order thinking are mutually exclusive. As if expending effort on the basics is poor use of time and resources at the expense of some greater "higher order thinking" good. Each day I am even more convinced that you need the basics so that you can be the bigger thinker, not the other way around.

It's not surprising that students are entering college unprepared. Clearly there is a discrepancy between what high schools believe is most important to teach and what colleges expect incoming freshmen to know. And yet surveys conducted by ACT reveal that at the middle school, high school, and postsecondary level there is agreement across the board: Basic Operations and Applications were the top rated mathematic strand. Yes, those "basics" so many parents keep trying to find in their children's curricula and in frustration end up supplementing on their own.

According to ACT, high school and postsecondary teachers aren't always on the same page though, especially when it comes to placing an emphasis on advanced content.

Most notably, high school and postsecondary instructors tend to disagree when it comes to the importance of more advanced content topics. High school mathematics teachers gave more advanced mathematics topics greater importance than did their postsecondary counterparts. Postsecondary instructors responded that they consider rigorous understanding of fundamental mathematics more important than exposure to more esoteric mathematics content topics for success in their courses. Postsecondary math instructors indicated in written comments on the survey instrument that the student ability they want above all else is the ability to do fundamental mathematics. These instructors feel that if their incoming students have a solid basic math background, they can teach them college content.--ACT National Curriculum Survey 2005-2006

We're sending our students to college with a false sense of skills and ability. First time college freshmen may think they are ready for the challenges of college because they did well in high school, covered a plethora of "advanced topics", and were on a college track in high school. But the reality they quickly face is that they are seriously unprepared for a major that leads to a career in the STEM disciplines.

This may be the most difficult blow for a student accustomed to high achievement. These students never had the opportunity to develop a work ethic because they breezed through a system with a false sense of rigor and an education that downplayed the basics in favor of a potpourri of discovery learning. By the time they figure out what they don't know, they are knee deep in courses that are beyond their capabilities-- not by any fault of their own, but because they were sold a false bill of goods. Their tools aren't cut out for this kind of work.

It is unforgiveable that a child who could have had many choices as to what career track to follow faces many closed doors from the very outset. It's unforgiveable because it doesn't have to be that way.

At any rate, this article points out more of the obvious-- that there is a disconnect between what is happening K-12 and the expectations in college is painfully clear. What is not clear at all is whether the necessary changes will take place with the efficiency and the urgency required to make a difference.

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