The Buffalo News, Sunday, July 20, 2003

State's math standards don't add up

7/20/2003

While Education Commissioner Richard Mills and the Regents are rightly commended by the News for upgrading graduation requirements for weaker students, they have not addressed problems in school mathematics that are both serious and ongoing. Unhappily, the Math A fiasco masks far deeper problems.

Young people will have to compete in world that increasingly involves serious use of mathematics. Accordingly, I make the following proposals.

1. Mills and the Regents need to address the emerging learning disability that I call "calculator assisted mathematical incompetence." Many young people cannot do simple algebra or even simple arithmetic without the assistance of a calculator. To address this serious problem, I would propose that calculators not be permitted on 75-85 percent of the problems on a given Regents exam. While I support the intelligent use of a calculator, it should be used to enhance rather than subvert human mastery of mathematics.

2. Mills should re-establish the Bureau of Mathematics Education that his predecessor abolished. Curriculum and testing in mathematics is serious business. My impression is that the State Education Department is seriously understaffed with people expert in mathematics. Once revived, the Bureau should have as its head someone with a doctorate in mathematics, not in mathematics-education.

3. Regents exams in mathematics should be offered at the end of each year. I was a critic of Courses I, II and III. That said, replacing Regents exams given at the end of each year in Courses I, II, and III with just two exams, Math A and Math B, was an administrative and pedagogical mistake.

4. The current standards need to be corrected and improved. Some six years ago some of us pointed out that the statement on page 22 of the 1996 New York State "Learning Standards for Mathematics, Science and Technology" was flawed. According to the MST, one indicator of student reasoning ability is if students can "prove that an altitude of an isosceles triangle, drawn to the base, is perpendicular to the base." Since by definition an altitude is perpendicular to its base, there is nothing to prove.

5. Finally, I believe that one of the Regents should be a seasoned university or college mathematician. Then at least the state bureaucracy and the Regents themselves would realize that someone with some mathematical expertise is watching.

RICHARD H. ESCOBALES JR.

Professor of Mathematics

Canisius College

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