Feb 8, 2007

checking the premises: myths about Washington mathematics education

I'm not a math teacher. I'll just get that out there, so when the criticism comes, I can deflect it like a pinball bumper. I teach and coach debate. So although I'm not proficient in formulizing and calculition, I'm pretty darn good at seeing through faulty logic.

Virginia M. Warfield is a math teacher--a math professor, in fact. So when she tells us she's going to separate myths from truths in the debate over Washington's math instruction, we ought to pay attention.

Sadly, if we look closely, we'll see some questionable premises. Her words are in italics.

1. Perhaps the most damaging myth is that the state's K-12 mathematics is in disastrous condition. It is not. In the most commonly accepted set of objective data, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Washington is above the median in all categories and one of the top four or five in many.

That's great: but then, the NAEP is a relative comparison. In Washington, 25% of students tested at "below basic." In the leading state, North Dakota, only 19% fell under the bar--but that's one out of every five students. Now, I'm not saying Washington's math instruction is a disaster--I'm not qualified to judge--but this isn't good evidence to the contrary.

2. Another much-trumpeted myth is, "Our state standards are rated F." There is indeed one organization, the educationally conservative Fordham Foundation, which so rated us. It is not a correct assessment of our standards, but rather of the discrepancy between Washington's educational priorities and the Fordham Foundation's.

Warfield discounts the FF for its "conservative" stance, a sly ad hominem, and then goes on to claim that it just shows that they value different things when it comes to mathematics instruction. Fine: so, why are their values wrong or inferior to the state's? That discrepancy can't be wished away by pure assertion.

3. On another front, a lot of genuine confusion surrounds the WASL results. From the confusion, one notably false conclusion has emerged: Because attempts to use the 10th-grade WASL as a graduation requirement produced serious difficulties, the WASL must be a bad test. That is akin to throwing out a thermometer because it reports a fever. The 10th-grade WASL does not measure obscure knowledge. It measures knowledge that any resident of our state needs to have, and that the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction has set as the goal for all of our students.

I agree that you shouldn't throw out a thermometer just because it indicates a fever. But if your thermometer records unusually high temperatures on a consistent basis, it might be broken. Or, if you stick it under your tongue for five seconds, you might not get an accurate reading. See where this is going? The WASL isn't valid by default--and a weak analogy doesn't make it any more valid.

These disagreements aside, I find a few things worth attention: Warfield is right that our society wants a quick fix to a complex problem, and that the OSPI hasn't successfully convinced school districts--where change really counts--to adopt new strategies. (Even where they are trying, contention and chaos are common.)

Something is definitely wrong when half the students who take a test can't pass it. Is it the students? Their schools? Their parents? Their teachers? The test? Sounds like a hell of a WASL prompt.

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