Math Literacy – Redux

Posted on July 5, 2010
by FeliciaOctocog

I was recently meeting with the former principal of a local Middle School, and we were discussing the difficulties our students are having with math. While the problem is greater with our immigrant students, probably due to literacy issues, it is also a problem with our low-income, native English speakers as well. He made a comment that our educational system marches forward and rarely circles back to go over old material. Therefore, if a students misses some critical building block in mathematics (e.g. negative numbers), this gap in learning will continue to provide setbacks through Algebra 1 and higher.

For our immigrant youth coming from countries where there may be less rigorous academic standards, students may arrive in this country with serious gaps in their math learning.   The gaps can be so serious, that the student never catches up.  60% of low-income, 56% of Hispanics and 75% of Limited English Proficient students (10th grade) scored needs improvement or failed in Math MCAS. The scores are significantly worse for 8th graders. These statistics underscore the problem.

So why don’t the schools provide math proficiency testing – similar to the MEPA tests administered for English Language Learners?  Students who have gaps in learning would spend as much time as they need to master the mathematical concepts needed to succeed in high school math such as multiplication tables, order of operations, negative numbers, fractions, decimals and percentages and so forth.  My guess is that it would not take long for the students to master the basics and could quickly move into mainstream algebra and geometry courses. It is also possible that some students could be in a Math Literacy classroom at the same time they are in mainstream math similar to the way students still take ESL Lab after being mainstreamed into regular college prep English.

We have been working with our high school graduates (who have all passed MCAS) to prepare them to take the college placement test called the Accuplacer prior to starting at North Shore Community College this fall. All of these students scored so low in arithmetic that they would not be allowed to register for college level math which is a graduation requirement.  Therefore, we started the classes to help them score higher.  Not surprisingly, the students, with concentrated study twice a week, are quickly picking it up.  For most it is a review but for some it is the first time they have seen certain types of problems.  After 6 weeks of study (only 2 hours per week) all improved their scores by 30% or more but this was still not high enough to get into college level math classes.

Based on our experiences here at Salem CyberSpace, I would encourage schools to think about testing students for math literacy upon entering the school from another country (or even another school system) and to institute a Math Lab similar in scope to the ESL Lab to help these students catch-up quickly before they get too far behind.