CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last week's conversation with Concord University math professor Joe Blankenship regarding the dismal graduation prospects for incoming college freshmen that have to take remedial math classes drew a lot of response.
Blankenship noted that he has a unique perspective, having taught sixth-grade math in Mercer County public schools, and seeing former students return to the remedial freshmen math classes he now teaches with their math skills significantly diminished.
Blankenship blamed that on students not taking math classes in high school -- which several readers pointed out might have been possible at one time, but not anymore. Current state Board of Education graduation requirements require all college-bound students to have four years of high school math.
(I didn't question Blankenship about his theory, since I personally had a nine-year gap between math classes, from seventh-grade geometry to statistical analysis in grad school.)
One teacher wrote: "There are two major problems facing math education in the U.S. today: The quality and certification of adequate math educators beginning at the middle school level, and the penalties schools face if graduation rates fall below a certain standard. Students lacking basic skills are often pushed from one grade level to another, starting in middle school, to keep them progressing through the system.
"As an educator, this is a problem I have been battling for 20 years. It is not new, nor is a solution in sight."
Another educator said the problem lies with the No Child Left Behind legislation, first implemented in 2002, when today's college freshmen were second graders.
"What No Child Left Behind did, as virtually any K-12 or college teacher can tell you, was reduce the remainder of those kids' public schooling to one giant test prep session, since no schools wanted to fail to make 'adequate yearly progress,' or AYP. Schools that failed to make AYP faced all sorts of ugly consequences, so the easiest thing to do was to make sure kids scored well on the yearly standardized test that NCLB required all states to administer.
"Ergo, while this year's college freshmen may have learned great test-taking techniques, they also had their education limited to what's on the WESTEST. I've no idea why anyone's surprised that they can't manage fundamental math or English, since they never learned fundamental math or English. They didn't learn concepts. They learned what was on the test.
"The sad thing is that this development was entirely foreseeable, and a whole lot of educators did, in fact, write about the inevitable outcome -- and it's the one that Professor Blankenship points out. It's manifestly unfair to criticize colleges who find it necessary to enroll students in remedial courses when it wasn't colleges who imposed the testing juggernaut."
(Of course, one can fault colleges that, under pressure to keep enrollment figures from declining, admit unqualified students who are unlikely to be able to handle college-level studies and have high odds against ever graduating. As Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, noted last month, the state may be operating more colleges than it realistically needs or can financially support.)