A problem with math education

My older son was recently telling me about what it was like to take California's high-school exit exam. This test covers eighth-grade math (not much more than the ambition, distraction, uglification and derision that the Mock Turtle studied), and students need to get a score of 55% on the math part of the test to pass it. The test is somewhat controvertial because many students fail it – about 20% of tenth-grade students fail it on their first attempt.

Before the math part of the test, the teacher administering it gave the students some last minute pointers. One went roughly like this: "And remember, if it's something like y = x2 it's a parabola and if it's an x-graph it's a straight line."

My son, as well as several other students near him, had absolutely no idea what an "x-graph" was, so they asked the teacher to explain this. After a few minutes of discussion it turned out to be what most (but clearly not all) people would call a "linear equation."

And the teacher administering the test also gave the students some bad information about scientific notation: if you have 0.0000007, that's 7 x 10-7, not 7 x 10-6. Fortunately, the students managed to eventually correct the teacher, although it did require entering the number into a calculator to get the teacher to believe that their answer was actually the right one. (And that was actually after the teacher called another teacher who actually agreed with the incorrect answer.)


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