One of our regular readers, who is a member of a college mathematics faculty, sent this following comment about the state of math education today:

“I teach at a small four year college in NY. We administer a mathematics placement test to all incoming freshmen. The test we use was created in house and covers basic skills from algebra, trigonometry, and pre calculus. Questions are asked in a straightforward manner (unlike the current NYS common core based regents exams).

“Any student may take a statistics class (taught outside the mathematics department), regardless of placement score. However, we use the results of the placement test, high school coursework and individual discussions with the students to place students appropriately in the remedial algebra, college algebra, pre calculus, calculus sequence.

That said, fully 25% of our incoming freshmen place into remedial algebra–some should probably be placed lower than
remedial algebra, but we do not offer such a course. These students truly need the remedial work.

“The reasons why these students place low are varied. Some have not taken math courses for two years and have become rusty. Some students never really learned the material (the percentage of points required to pass the NYS regents exams is quite low and the tests are so poorly designed that scores are meaningless).

“I am continually bombarded by emails from companies who want to sell textbooks that combine remedial coursework with college credit coursework. Perhaps in some non STEM fields this approach works, but you cannot teach calculus to students who haven’t learned how to add fractions or who don’t understand basic laws of exponents.

“I do not blame their teachers. I blame a state system that shoves a scientific calculator in the hands of every fourth grader–before they’ve learned their multiplication tables, before they’ve learned how to add fractions, and before they’ve gained any practical sense of how numbers work, because apparently solving convoluted word problems is more important than understanding how numbers work. (Some never learn these basic skills–I have students in my classes who need a calculator to multiply 2 times 3).

“This same state system requires every student in algebra to have access to a graphing calculator with equally disastrous results. Calculator overuse is only a small part of the problem. The insistence that all students follow what used to be considered a college prep track and the subsequent rewriting of standards into a bizarre jumble of topics in which necessary skills and techniques are deemphasized in favor of solving pseudo “real world” applications are certainly major contributors.

“The regents exams have become a weird mishmash of questions with teachers left trying to guess all the permutations of how a question about a concept could be asked. I am afraid I have wandered off topic a bit. Anyway, many students truly do need remedial work that cannot be accomplished as part of another course. We do our best to get them through it and get them where they need to be mathematically. We are not 100% successful. Some simply do not have the ability, some do not make the effort, and saddest of all, some are just too far behind.”

Any comments from math teachers?