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Math: The 11th-grade test doesn't add up

November 11. 2013 10:46PM

Ben Kepple 

When my bosses volunteered me to take a practice exam covering the Common Core's Grade 11 math standards, I wholeheartedly agreed. As an accountant, I work with numbers all day. So, I figured, how hard could it be? It's a math test.

A short while later, my head hurt and I was grinding my teeth into powder. It turns out using brain cells one hasn't accessed since one's high school days is rather stressful.

Faced with a question about "sine" and "cosine," my mind wandered off to the subject of loan applications. When I came across yet another question asking me to determine "x" in a complex, graphed-out equation, I quickly determined an answer only half-suitable for print. And even worse, nothing was divisible by nine. (That's a little accounting joke. Humor me.)

So, yes, the test was hard. I'd like to think at least some of the difficulty I had was because it covered subjects such as trigonometry and pre-calculus, things I hadn't thought about, much less focused on, since I was in 11th grade some two decades ago. Although, to be perfectly honest, I wasn't that great at them back then, either. I'm very fast at mental arithmetic, but in high school, my brain hit a brick wall at advanced math and calculus. Perhaps this test brought back repressed memories of long-ago math classes that at the time seemed to have no utility.

First, the good points: If the practice exam represents what students will learn in 11th-grade math, then Common Core will be good for students planning to go into so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math. The concepts discussed will prove useful building blocks for further study in these subjects. And the questions on the test were heavily weighted toward these.

I would also like to think careful study of these topics would help every student as they progress in their educations. At least, that was my experience. When I was in college and suffering through calculus — which I only took because I'd need it if I decided to go to business school (I wound up earning a bachelor's degree in history) — I realized that doing well on the basic stuff might have made that class a lot easier. Now, the exam's bad points: Only a few questions on it dealt with real-world concepts, which I'd argue are just as important — if not more so — to most high school students. After all, not everyone is going to be a scientist or an engineer. As a result, I think a wider scope of curriculum would help students get the most out of math classes.

Heck, most students will only deal with "find x" problems again when their own children ask for help in solving them.

On the other hand, most students would find it very useful from the get-go if they could figure out change in their heads, read an amortization schedule, or understand the relationship between price and yield. Also, these types of real-world lessons would — dare I say it — make their math exams a bit more interesting than watching paint dry.

No, really. Ask yourself: Which question is more interesting?

A) Solve for "x" if 3x2 + 20 – 4.5x = 50; or

B) Where are the customers' yachts?

Obviously, it is B, as nearly 75 years ago, Fred Schwed wrote a book about Wall Street with that title, and people are still buying it today.

Now, admittedly, that particular question might be a little free-form for a math exam. But if you can make questions about math relevant and interesting, suddenly answering them becomes relevant and interesting. In my case, I finally "got" calculus when my college professor used the example of a production line throughout a series of questions, and I can't believe I'm alone in that regard.

Going forward, I just hope that our standard-writers and test-makers keep that in mind.

If you'd like to find out whether you're smarter at math than an 11th-grader, take the practice test yourself. You can find it here:


Benjamin Kepple is an accountant and former reporter for The Union Leader.

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