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Are You Better At Math Than a 4th (or 10th) Grader? 845

New submitter newslash.formatb points to this Washington Post blog post, which "discusses the National Assessment of Educational Progress test (specifically, the math part). One of the school board members took it and was unable to answer any of the 60 math questions, though he guessed correctly on 10 of them. He then goes on to claim that the math isn't relevant to many people. P.S. — if you want to feel like Einstein, check out some sample questions." Maybe this is mostly about the kind of life skills that are sufficient to succeed in management.
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Are You Better At Math Than a 4th (or 10th) Grader?

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  • Worried (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:35AM (#38324466)

    Havent taken a math test in a little while, was worried I was missing something after every question.

    I wasnt.

  • by Zironic ( 1112127 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:39AM (#38324482)

    But I found those questions trivial without a calculator, how you'd manage to fail with a calculator is beyond me.

  • by adamchou ( 993073 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:42AM (#38324486)
    After reading this article, having someone as influential as a school board member take this test and fail it is putting education on a very dangerous course. It normally wouldn't be too bad but this guy's ego is so big that instead of admitting that he just isn't knowledgeable on the subject, he goes on a rant about how irrelevant this stuff is to life and how unnecessary this subject matter is to evaluating a student's college career. I mean sure, it might not be relevant to him for his job duties, but any science/engineering discipline should be well versed in simple math like this. I really hope he doesn't make a push to dumb down these tests to make the math easier.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:49AM (#38324512)

    In science and engineering, answering multiple choice questions is hardly something you need to excel at.

  • What this means (Score:5, Insightful)

    by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:49AM (#38324514)

    "I won't beat around the bush," he wrote in an email. "The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that's a "D", and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

    He continued, "It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

    The guy's quite right. He shouldn't have a bachelor, let alone two masters and 15 credit hours towards a doctorate.

    Unfortunately, too many students are in a similar position. Universities have been turned into for pay degree mills, and the qualifications the higher education industry produces are generally not worth the paper they are printed on.

  • Re:Hard to believe (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2011 @07:54AM (#38324536)

    I think your excuse shows why older people fail at these tests: They treat them as something you need to learn by heart. If you visualize the problem, it is immediately clear where the mirrored point is. Then you don't need to remember "how many" signs to flip.

  • by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:01AM (#38324576) Journal

    From TFA:

    "I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities."

    And he couldn't answer a single question right. How much do they learn between eighth and tenth grade? Is it actually likely that the eighth-grade one is something we should all expect to get perfect on in less time than it takes to write a post about, but the tenth-grade one is so hard that a reasonable person couldn't be expected to get a single question right?

    My guess is tat this guy is not able to make sense of complex data. You are

  • by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:05AM (#38324594)
    Actually, a calculator is a hindrance. One of the virtues of mental arithmetic is that one gets a "feel" for numbers and magnitudes, and how they behave. People who use calculators exclusively never learn that skill.

    It's like putting people in a motorized wheelchair so they never learn to walk. In theory it's not a bad idea - a wheelchair with a powerful motor would give us the ability to drive around faster than we can walk or run, and carry lots of luggage around etc. In practice it's a stupid idea, obviously.

    What you should have done in that one problem was not used a calculator, but looked at the sizes of the numbers given in the multiple choices, and then picked the choice where the magnitude was in the correct ballpark.

  • by fantomas ( 94850 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:05AM (#38324596)

    I'm surprised that students are allowed calculators to work out these problems, particularly the eighth grade students. I think mental arithmetic is a useful skill even in the age of calculators/computers/mobile phones with built in calculators.... the ability to estimate an approximate answer is sometimes more useful than the ability to provide a specific answer.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:17AM (#38324662)

    Bad, very bad, examples. Psychiatrists have a LOT of statistics in their degree. Physiotherapists are hardly good in their field if they know nothing about the physical constraints of the human body (which requires quite a bit of math to actually understand it), and I wouldn't want a mechanic that doesn't know why the first thing about how much force his torque wrench should use.

    Sure, they can work by rote, going by the manual, but that's akin to the multitudes of rote programmers who know nothing about the algorithms they used and just adjust code handed to them to fit the problem they're working on, not knowing WHY this works. Unlike programs, cars can have some serious impact when they crash because the person assembling them didn't take a little difference from the vanilla setup into account.

    While I agree that the people you mentioned won't need to be able to solve two dimensional integrals, what we're talking about here is BASIC math. And I can't think of any professional that can get by without a knowledge of at least basic applied math if he wants to be good in his field.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:27AM (#38324738)

    I am a recent import from Canada to the US, working near 'Intelligently Designed' Dover, PA.
    The amount of willful ignorance here in the US is shocking, even this far North.
    This whole article is a symptom of the 'dumbing down' of the the US, embracing style over substance, abandoning reason for the sake of conformity.
    The math questions are relatively easy (even for a sleepy dyslexic), I only had to grab a pen and paper for the hourly wages one.

    Yes, there are smart people in the US, but the majority are afraid to think for themselves.
    They gravitate towards the loud pompous idiots, and will ignore facts and the reality around them.
    Current and past GOP candidates are a very sad commentary of American leadership (Palin for education czar, Gingrich for morals minister?).

    The US is a quickly fading empire, willing to blame anyone and everyone (immigrants) but itself for becoming non-competitive in the world market.

  • by goldcd ( 587052 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:29AM (#38324750) Homepage
    I can understand he might get some wrong and have forgotten others - but none?
    My best guess is that he's pissed off with how the school board is being run, he's tried to get things changed and nobody is listening.
    So he wants to go public. How does he get attention?
    "Board member doesn't like tests"
    "Board member didn't do as well on tests as he thought he would"
    "Board member cannot do anything on test"

    In his position I'd be selecting the headline, and then just filling in the test to ensure I got the one I wanted.
  • by EvilNTUser ( 573674 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:43AM (#38324808)

    Sorry about replying twice to your post, but I forgot to comment on this:

    So RTFA, and then: what conclusions do you draw?

    First of all, we have to remember that the sample questions were from the 4th and 8th grade, but the test he failed was 10th grade. At that age level, the questions might already be hard enough that it's justifiable to have forgotten a couple of rules and fail as an adult.

    It's his reaction that's terrible. Because if you don't understand those rules when they're relevant, you're not going to be able to move on to the harder stuff. Is this guy seriously telling us he has 15 hours towards a doctorate and doesn't have the math skills to even begin to understand statistics?

    The stuff you learn up to high school isn't supposed to be 100% relevant to the field you choose to work in when you're old enough to make that decision. It's supposed to enable you to choose any career at that point, and maybe even more importantly, have a general understanding of how the world works.

    This guy is so strictly confined within his own bubble that he thinks children should be optimized for his one career path out of thousands. And he's on the school board. Ouch.

  • by Yvanhoe ( 564877 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:45AM (#38324820) Journal
    If the kind of tests he failed is similar to the one linked, it is not just science/engineering careers that are targeted, but anyone that is allowed to have money or contract a loan. How can you fail these questions ? The most complicated question asks you to compute how much you earn in 29 hours if you earn 288$ in 40 hours.

    People who fail at such tests are not functional in society : they cannot understand the basics of employment, either as an employer or an employee. They should barred from contracting loans as they have no way of understanding what an interest rate is.

    I really pray to a non denominational deity that this is a very rare exception rather than the norm. And that this person will be forced to resign.
  • by zegota ( 1105649 ) <<rpgfanatic> <at> <>> on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:47AM (#38324824)

    What you should have done in that one problem was not used a calculator, but looked at the sizes of the numbers given in the multiple choices, and then picked the choice where the magnitude was in the correct ballpark.

    Uh, no. If a test question says I can use a calculator, I'm using a calculator. For some of these tests, there's too many questions not to. Obviously, this one was trivial, but you catch my drift. In *most* cases, a calculator is more efficient (yes, you can find some edge cases where realizing the "trick" is faster than typing the equation)

  • by Hadlock ( 143607 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:48AM (#38324834) Homepage Journal

    Blagojevich ran the entire state of Illinois, and claims to not know how to use a computer. I'm not sure I could trust him with an iPod.

    A movie star was in charge of California for several years, I am pretty sure we had a professional wrestler as the govenor of another state in the last 15 years.

    Politics and booksmarts don't seem to have anything in common, as far as I can tell. Success in politics seems to be centered around who you know and how adept you are at talking to people and making both parties mutually happy. If politicians were booksmart they wouldn't need to pay analysts to sort out the facts of the studies that they commission.

  • by CAPSLOCK2000 ( 27149 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @08:57AM (#38324864) Homepage

    For what it's worth, my first step was also to simplify * 75/25 to *3 .
    The second step was also 50 * 3.
    However, my third step was to look at the answers. Only one answer (141) was in the right ballpark. All the others were off by so much that they couldn't be right.

    The 'guestimation' strategy fails at question 5 that has two answers that are very close to each other ($203.00 and $208.80). However, my mathematical instincts tell me that 203.00 is an unlikely outcome when multiplying with 29. I used a calculator to confirm my guess (as allowed by the test).

  • Re:Hard to believe (Score:5, Insightful)

    by msauve ( 701917 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @09:00AM (#38324882)
    It's quicker just to do it in your head. An exact answer wasn't needed - it's a multiple choice question and the answers provided were so different that a simple "guesstimate" would lead you to the correct one.

    becomes 50*(75/25) = 50*3 = 150
    so what are you going to pick, 141, 1175, or something even larger?
  • Believe it or not it is something I and many others do every. Sure we crank everything though spreadsheets and all sorts of other tools, but its always easy to place an extra zero, drop a zero or transpose number. At least if you have a ballpark figure you know if something is an order of magnitude off it can't possibly be right.
  • by Mr Z ( 6791 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @09:32AM (#38325088) Homepage Journal

    Assuming all questions had four options and the answers were uniformly distributed, then yes, the "expected value" is 15. But, surely you recall that the standard deviation of the binomial distribution is sqrt(60*(1/4)*(3/4)) = sqrt(11.25) = approx 3.35. So to get 10 puts you less than 1.5 stdev from the mean. For normally distributed data (which I would expect the scores for such a test with random answer selection), 68% of the results are within 1 stdev, and 95% are within 2.

    So, a score of 10 doesn't seem out of place at all. (And this is all high-school level stats, mind you, sticking to the Probability 101 theme here.)

  • by bjorniac ( 836863 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @09:32AM (#38325098)

    As someone with a masters in maths and PhD in physics, this is the same way I did the calculation. In fact, I suspect it's the way anyone who knows some more advanced maths would do it: What you've effectively done (in maths language) is:

    1) Use the associative property of multiplication and its inverse: (AB)C=A(BC).

    2) Rewrite the unknown product 47*3 in terms of two known products, by first rewriting 47=50-3, thus (50-3)*3.

    3) Expand the bracket: 47*3=50*3-3*3.

    Now this is much akin to the 'normal' method used to teach kids, except they always expand their brackets in terms of positive numbers broken up by powers of 10, ie 47=40+7, however from a mathematical standpoint there's no reason not to use any splitting you like, only the expedience of learning a limited number of multiplications.

    The true gift of good mathematicians is not only being able to make these thought processes, but properly explain them so that others can too. Far too often maths as it is taught is just a voodoo recipe for performing calculations rather than a well explained, reasoned setup. This is fine for people who merely have to perform the function (much as you don't need to know the workings of an internal combustion engine to drive a car) but if you want to derive a deeper understanding of what's going on its woefully insufficient.

  • by DaveGod ( 703167 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @09:57AM (#38325248)

    More than that, it wasn't that I had some mental block on some topics - it was just that I'd never learnt them (or been taught them) properly in the first place. If I spent a bit of time looking at the type of question, rather than the specific question, stuff 'clicks'

    I'd done fine at maths throughout school until mid-way through higher (roughly final year of highschool level) I was suddenly struggling. There were whole sections of the syllabus where I just couldn't see it. There'd be a question and I just couldn't grasp how to get from the info given to the solution required. I failed my mock exam, and not just marginally.

    I was a "B maybe A" in all other classes. The teacher was pretty good and everything.

    As luck would have it, my dad was friends with an engineer who offered some tutoring. First couple of sessions were straightforward and he said he didn't know what the problem was. He was giving me stuff that was as hard as it gets in the exam and I was able to solve them and explain it, not just following memorised procedures. Next session we came across something I just had no idea. He walked through solving it and one of the steps I was just what? I can't even remember what it was, some concept that once you have it you don't even think about it, like how you can multiply both sides of the equation to simplify. He'd barely started explaining it and I was like ooh - it just clicked.

    We abandoned the sessions soon after that because I'd literally gone from being an D/E to a strong B student in but a moment of comprehension. I must have simply been off sick that day or something, and the specific weakness never picked up in marking - perhaps due to rather large class sizes. I suspect that's not the real root though. Mid-way through the year, the classes were shuffled and my desk partner was changed from a friend who I worked well with to someone I didn't know and pretty much didn't work with at all. It was probably about this time my grades began to fall and my friend's grades slipped as bad as mine (he was the other mock fail). But he wasn't as lucky as me, he didn't have a dad with an engineer friend, he failed the finals while I was a couple of points away from an A.

  • by mrsquid0 ( 1335303 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @10:15AM (#38325364) Homepage

    It seems that people in the US do not want governors or presidents who are highly intelligent. They want people who they think that they can identify with. The problem with this is that being a governor, or president, is not something that most people can identify with.

  • by wickerprints ( 1094741 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @10:41AM (#38325574)

    Reading comprehension fail. Note that the grandparent post says "any science/engineering discipline should be well versed in simple math like this." It doesn't say, "answering multiple choice questions." So, to spell out the difference for you, since you seem to not understand it--the format in which the student is tested for proficiency in mathematics is distinct from the knowledge of concepts and skills required for mastery.

    And yes, the grandparent post is correct. Any scientist or engineer should be able to demonstrate proficiency with these basic mathematical concepts (arithmetic, estimation, decimal numbers, rates, the Cartesian coordinate system, basic probability). In fact, I would say that ANY adult who has graduated high school should know how to do these things, for what would have been the point of attending high school in the first place if one so easily forgets such things?

    Here's the thing. We can debate at length about the utility of such knowledge for the vast majority of people in this world who would presumably not need to know how to do math to succeed or even get by in their day-to-day existence. But why is it that this is the measure by which we determine whether something is worthwhile to know and understand? If that's the way we begin the conversation--i.e., "will I ever need to use this?"--then we've already lost the fight to educate subsequent generations. It's a regressive, know-nothing, anti-intellectual attitude that fails to appreciate the value of knowledge for its own sake. It's why American society is so troubled--large segments of the American public have lost the ability to think critically, having become too accustomed to the notion that someone else will do the analysis for them.

  • by zippthorne ( 748122 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @10:45AM (#38325600) Journal

    My first step was to laugh at the "you can use a calculator" instruction - what the heck? What are they testing with this question?

    He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

    Yeah, something is wrong. If he took a test with questions like the sample, how the hell did he manage to get a BS without the ability to figure even one of them out. "you can use a calculator"!!!!

    I'd really, really, really like to review the original test now...

  • by tompaulco ( 629533 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @11:06AM (#38325734) Homepage Journal
    Teaching to a standardized test makes the standardized test irrelevant. Same as building a CPU to excel at a set of benchmarks. It doesn't say anything about the performance of the CPU in real world applications, just shows how good at coding to a particular benchmark the engineers are. Teaching to a standardized test similarly just shows how good a teacher can teach raw facts that can be forgotten later.
    Now, teaching to a standard curriculum and then later testing on how well that curriculum was absorbed, although sounding only slightly different, is actually a useful measure.
  • by ikkonoishi ( 674762 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @11:06AM (#38325736) Journal

    Especially once you realize that 3*7=21 and only one answer ended in 1.

  • by ( 142825 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @11:25AM (#38325868) Homepage

    If you can't do the math without a calculator, you should not be doing it!

  • by Xyrus ( 755017 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @11:39AM (#38326036) Journal

    So the tests allow you to use a calculator and gives you a cheat sheet of standard formulas used in the test? Even without those the test questions are pretty damn easy, even for 10th grade education.

    How on earth do people like him make it to the school board?

  • by coldsalmon ( 946941 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @12:11PM (#38326340)

    I haven't taken a math course since high school, 12 years ago. But I got the first 5 questions right without any trouble, then skipped to question 44 in case the hard ones were at the end, got it right instantly, and then quit. I agree with the board member that "something is seriously wrong," but it's not the fact that this test is too hard, or that the problems test useless skills. I use this level of math in my daily life, from time to time -- it really amounts to basic problem-solving skills.

    But anyone who's been out of school for a year knows that making money is only very rarely related to skilled competence. Since money does not grow on trees, in order to get some you must find someone who has money and convince them to give it to you. Basically, financial success is dependent on the ability to make friends with rich people. This is a skill that is not taught in school, and it has no relationship to math ability.

  • by Thing 1 ( 178996 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @12:35PM (#38326598) Journal

    The world needs musicians and clothes designers and yes, managers and salesmen, as much as we need good scientists and engineers.

    While I agree with you, I think the world actually needs more scientists and engineers than other professions. As much as "the world" needs anything; to finish the thought of what/why the world needs, the world needs this in order to plan for and survive the next asteroid strike, is where I'm thinking, and also to get off this rock and spread. Thinking perhaps too far into your comment, it reminds me of something my dad used to say, "the world needs ditch-diggers too"; my corollary is "but not that many..."

  • by langelgjm ( 860756 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @01:30PM (#38327216) Journal

    Yeah, something is wrong. If he took a test with questions like the sample, how the hell did he manage to get a BS without the ability to figure even one of them out. "you can use a calculator"!!!!

    It depends on what the BS was in. A little more digging reveals this:

    A resident of Orange County for three decades, he has a bachelor of science degree in education and two masters degrees: in education and educational psychology.

    I'm not sure why the education undergrad degree was a BS, rather than a BA, but that, combined with the two master's degrees in education, explain a whole lot. He could probably have gone through all of those degrees, including the 15 hours towards a doctorate (by which he probably means an Ed.D., which is definitely not the same as a Ph.D.) without ever taking any math more advanced than basic algebra. Educational psychology might (and definitely should) have included basic statistics, but it might not have, and depending on the way the course was taught, might have been easy to skate through.

    Also, being able to oversee a large budget tell me nothing about his math ability. It tells me he has basic Excel skills. If he thinks he doesn't need those math skills in his job, he probably doesn't realize how much more efficiently/accurately he could be doing his job if he did have and use them.

  • by geoskd ( 321194 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @01:48PM (#38327444)

    If you can't do the math without a calculator, you should not be doing it!

    Its that kind of attitude towards teaching that has caused the USA to be such a laughing-stock when it comes to elementary education. Some people simply don't have the thought patterns to handle abstract math easily. For those people, you need to show them as many tricks and cheats as possible, and show them how it applies to problems they want to solve. I guarantee that no matter how bad a person is at math, they can count money. Just a matter of applying the knowledge to something interesting to the person...


  • Re:Worried (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tsingi ( 870990 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .kcir.maharg.> on Saturday December 10, 2011 @01:50PM (#38327464)

    The lady I buy bus tickets from (Who is VERY sweet) told me a couple days ago that she is amazed that the school kids she sells stuff to can't count their money.

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @03:35PM (#38328632)

    Those "tricks" and "cheats" are nothing of the sort. They are thinly disguised high-level abstract concepts from number theory, group theory, etc.

  • by cloudmaster ( 10662 ) on Saturday December 10, 2011 @06:07PM (#38329984) Homepage Journal

    So, the school board member is not expected to have successfully completed at least tenth grade? You don't need to have completed the second year of high school to serve on the school board? The member did not know the answer to a *single* question on a test which is aimed at the average 16 year old's expected math skills, and he only got a 62% on the reading section.

    This person has a Bachelor's, two Master's degrees (one of which is almost certainly an MBA), and is working on a doctorate. And he can't do math or reading at the level we expect from children who just got their driver's license. And his excuse is the same one you'd get from a 16 year old - "this isn't useful in real life". This bone head can "make sense of" complex financial data because he has underlings who actually can do this math. Not everyone can take every problempresented in life and ask someone else to make a pie chart they can understand.

    I think the sentiment expressed in the summary is pretty well spot-on. ;)

  • Re:Worried (Score:4, Insightful)

    by quanticle ( 843097 ) on Sunday December 11, 2011 @12:06AM (#38332232) Homepage

    Did you ever stop to ask yourself why 21st century American working conditions are better than those from the 19th? A lot of it comes down to health and safety regulation, including child-labor laws. The existence of sweatshops and ill-run factories all over the third world shows that companies are willing (and always will be willing) to sacrifice the lives of their workers as long as it is profitable for them to do so. Repealing that legislation would be a sure way to go right back to the sort of working conditions we had in American in the 1800s and the sort of working conditions we find in China today.

A committee is a group that keeps the minutes and loses hours. -- Milton Berle