The WASL's toughest math problem: We can't get there from here

When 49 percent of Washington's high school sophomores - about 34,000 kids - failed to pass the math portion of the WASL, parents started screaming, and rightly so. Almost half of those students don't have the skills required for a diploma.

Graduating without skills is not okay

Last week, Gov. Chris Gregoire and state schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson responded. First, they blamed teachers for not "getting it right." They said teachers need re-training and our kids need to take more classes. Their plan is that our kids must either pass the WASL or stay in "rigorous math classes" until graduation - whether or not they actually pass the course. Terrific motivator, huh?

While the fact that only 40 percent of our math teachers have math degrees is an issue, it isn't the main problem.

Our math program isn't working

The biggest problem is that our curriculum isn't working. Washington schools use the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) approach, which is weak in basic computational skills. When students don't get the basics, they fail in more advanced courses. Sadly, they also conclude, "I'm not good in math."

Since U.S. schools adopted NCTM standards, student math scores have plummeted nationwide. Luckily, savvy states like Massachusetts, Indiana and California dumped NCTM in favor of internationally accepted standards, because students in these programs are preferred hands-down by college admissions deans and employers. Washington policymakers should follow their example.

Bergeson, who did her doctoral work with NCTM, and others continue to defend it - despite the lack of effective curriculum. In fact, the math teachers in my local junior high say they've logged more than 40 hours of prep time, each developing their own classroom curriculum to support these ineffective standards. That's a lot of work for an inferior outcome. A call for re-training is a slap in the face to teachers who are working overtime to make an impossible situation work. Instead of getting a pat on the back for struggling to create a curriculum that will work, teachers hear the superintendent say that they are the problem.

We need world-class math standards

Re-training and more study will not get us there. We legislators need to take a stand for kids, parents and teachers who are being force-fed a math experiment that has already failed. It is tragic that we must delay the WASL requirement for graduation, because our students can't afford to keep waiting. However, if we must delay, let's at least fix the problem.

I recommend calling a small advisory committee of legislators and math teachers who can:

* Identify clear and realistic Grade Level Expectations (GLEs) so teachers know clearly what skills students must master.

* Design school-based tutorial programs funded with I-728 dollars. Helping students pass makes more sense than keeping them in classes where they aren't succeeding, a move that will likely displace other necessary coursework.

* Fix the math WASL, which currently demands significant English and writing skills. Let's make sure kids aren't failing math because they don't have English skills.

Why doggedly insist our students go down with the ship? Our kids are just as competent as those in other countries. Let's dump our stubborn adherence to a failed curriculum and adopt a plan that works.

Sen. Pflug represents the 5th Legislative District that includes North Bend, Maple Valley, Issaquah, Sammamish, Fall City, Snoqualmie and parts of rural King County. She is a member of the Senate Early Childhood, K-12 and Higher Education Committee.

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