A's in math is one of our family's left-brain traditions. Many of us are mathematicians, scientists, economists, and programmers, and even those with learning disabilities or non-quantitative careers have maintained the streak of top grades in grade school math--at least through trigonometry. Then, a year and a half ago, my daughter entered grade school.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
Because her oldest brother is old enough to have escaped Reform Math, and her middle brother has autism and an IEP that lets him do algebra independently, she is the first in our family to be fully immersed in the Reform Math curriculum that has recently permeated almost every school here in Philadelphia. And instead of receiving the top grade of 4 ("advanced"), she consistently gets 3s ("proficient").
Perhaps our elementary schools are rare exceptions to two rules.
Rule #1 is the tendency of all assessments--letter grades, grades out of 100, teaching evaluations, employee evaluations, surveys, and informal expressions of preference--to divide into four gradations that translate, roughly, into "excellent," "good", "fair," and "poor."
Rule #2 is grade inflation, rampant throughout high schools, colleges, graduate schools, and even the compliments we bestow on our children and friends--for faint praise, invariably, is damning. Could it be that our elementary schools have bucked this trend for grade deflation?
Apply rule #2 to rule #1, and the top grade means not just "excellent," but "good," while the next highest shifts down to "average."
But if elementary students rarely get 4s, I'm not worried that continued 3s in math will compromise my daughter's options for one of the few magnet high schools that offer Philadelphia students a decent secondary school education.
Otherwise, I not only worry, but question. What exactly are my daughter's 3s based on? One thing is certain: they don't reflect her math skills.
I know this because, in the Singapore Math she does at home, she is doing problems that are significantly more advanced than those she's doing in Reform Math. For example, she's currently solving, accurately and without help, Singapore problems like:
--4 children share 12 crackers equally. How many crackers does each child get?
--20 less than 98 is ___
Meanwhile, in her Reform "Today's Math" book, she's currently (accurately and without help) solving problems like:
--How many black triangles are there in Pattern A?
--There are 9 counters in all. Four of them are next to the cup. How many are under the cup?
Most kids in her class, so far as I know, aren't doing simple division and two-digit subtraction on the side. And there are no opportunities to demonstrate such skills in the classroom.
Indeed, this is the crux of the problem with the new math grading system. The actual math skills it assesses are so basic that most students are at ceiling. The only way to distinguish them is through non-mathematical aspects of their performance. (For similar observations, see kitchentablemath).
The Pennsylvania Math Standards on which the Philadelphia public schools base their grades, in fact, include numerous non-mathematical factors: explaining in words, drawing pictures, manipulating objects. Perhaps my daughter's explanations and drawings aren't as elaborate as some of her peers'. Perhaps she doesn't complete hands-on tasks as quickly as others do. And perhaps her shyness and passivity keep her from making oral contributions that "demonstrate superior understanding of concepts, skills and strategies" and from "independently explor[ing] ideas and topics:" two of her report card's benchmarks for grades of 4.
It's of course way too early to say just how strong my daughter's mathematical talents are. But I can't help wondering how many math buffs are being lost in the new system, and what this means for both their future, and that of this country.