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Posts tagged ‘math’

The New SAT Sounds a Lot Easier Than the One You Took

cbnew_blue_RGBYou might have heard that the SAT is getting redesigned again. Among other changes, the plan is to shift back to the old 1600 point scale that old farts like me took. (That’s the way it was pre-2005.) It’ll also be the first test available in both print and digital form, a change which seems almost comically overdue. These changes won’t take effect until 2016.

On top of those changes, there are a number of shifts that bring the test more closely in line with the Common Core State Standards, the guidelines that dictate what students should know by the time they’ve completed a certain grade.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core (and everyone seems to be torn between those two extremes), I think it is reasonably safe to say that the SAT of the near future will be a less stressful experience than what you and I remember. Here are a few of the changes for the easier:

1. The essay section is optional

Though it’s less than 10 years old, the essay portion of the test is going to become entirely optional. It’s likely certain colleges and programs will require it and others will not. But generally speaking, the essay will only be attempted by students who are pretty confident in their writing ability. Like when the essay section was originally introduced. I’m of two minds about this change. On the one hand, it’s too bad that learning how to write is apparently considered an “optional” skill. On the other hand, judging an essay on a fixed, standardized scale just encourages writing what the judges want to see, and that’s often not the same thing as good writing. So maybe having an essay on the SAT was always kind of a ridiculous addition.

2. No more penalties for guessing

As you no doubt remember, in an effort to discourage wild, random guessing, an incorrect answer on a multiple choice question on the SAT was actually worth negative points. I have no complaints whatsoever about the new test ditching the guess penalty; it was always a dumb rule anyway. I had a physics teacher in high school who applied the same rule to his tests. However, the point deductions were much, much larger since quizzes would typically only have 10-12 questions on them. True story, I had a friend who, because of this scoring system, once scored a -3/100.

3. Less topics covered by the math section

Rethinking the SAT as a true college preparatory test, the math section is going to cover a less extensive range of topics. The idea is to focus primarily on the ideas that will carry over into college, which won’t necessarily cover everything from high school. Goodbye geometry.

4. Less esoteric vocabulary

As an English major, this one bugs me a little. The new vocabulary list is going to do away with less commonly used words in favor of words that are more likely to be used in students’ future college and professional careers. You might lose a word like… well, like “esoteric”… in place of a word like “empirical” which is more likely to show up in a college course. No doubt this will make the vocab section easier, but what worries me is the impact this will have on etymology. While plenty of people would argue with me that it’s not important to learn the origins of words, understanding how the various roots and fragments come together to express ideas is incredibly useful to studying any language. You might never use a word like “exculpate,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in knowing that “inculpable,” “culpability” and “mea culpa” are all built from the same root.

So what do you think? Is it a good thing that the test is taking actual high school and college work into deeper consideration? Or do you think the new test sounds too “dumbed down”?

 

STEM Students Can (and Should) Dream Big Too

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It’s a tough time to be a student. Landing a halfway decent job is always a struggle, but recent graduates have to deal with a weak economy and devalued degrees, all while more and more of them need to take out loans and find other methods of paying for their education.

Students, you get hit with a flood of advice at all times. (I realize the irony of saying this while being another of many voices telling you what to do.) Lately, there’s been popular refrain among post-graduation advice: get a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) major and earn more money. Just look at these headlines: “Face the Facts: STEM degrees earn the highest paying jobs,” “STEM jobs pay more, reduce the wage gap between men and women,” “STEM Workers are in High Demand.” Study after study indicate that STEM jobs pay better than other fields and that investing your time in something like art, English, or God forbid, theater, is not a wise investment of your tuition dollars.

As an English and art major myself, it goes without saying that I’m not too keen on seeing my chosen areas of study get put down so often, but that’s not what this article is about.

I think there’s a danger in the tone we’ve set about discussing STEM degrees and jobs. The narrative in so many articles (and in many a Reddit thread) is that STEM students are inherently more valuable, that they do serious work, while we liberal arts majors play around with frivolous things. The tone is dismissive, condescending, and accordingly, really, really easy to ignore. Specifically, by focusing so much on money, we’re doing a disservice to the aspects of creativity and inspiration that can exist in the hard sciences.

That last part is the problem. Very few college students choose their area of study according to future earning potential. And telling them over and over again about the money isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Why? Because students are going to study what they find interesting, engaging, and exciting on a day-to-day basis. Future potential money is not as much of a motivator.

The more students think of STEM as the practical and stable area of study, the less the field fosters imagination. And that’s a real problem with the current American attitude towards science. There’s an obsession with practical application of science and a decreased focus on programs that don’t have immediately accessible real-world applications, like NASA or particle physics. Politicians and bureaucrats are overly concerned with the short-term return-on-investment of the sciences, and inherently distrustful of science of science’s sake. Unfortunately, it’s the latter that usually leads to great leaps forward, either through happy accidents or by making little bits of progress that can be carried, football-like, further down the field by later researchers.

Only one in a million of those dreams ever need to come true, but as a society, we aren’t doing enough to foster STEM dreams. Dreams are being dominated by the people who want to write the great American novel or become a world-famous actor or musician.

Most people with STEM degrees aren’t professional scientists, just as most English majors aren’t professional writers. But the ultimate reason for going to college only half lays with the question “What job can I get with this degree?” English majors mostly aren’t writers, but studying literature and the written word inform their broader world view, teach them to appreciate the arts, and help define the person they will be and the work they will do in a thousand unknowable ways.

Studying the sciences is no different. If we want more students to study STEM, we only need to show them how much they’ll get out of a STEM degree. Not the money or the degree, but curiosity, engagement, and that one in a million chance of finding something, not really practical, but really cool.

Florida Approves Setting Different Academic Goals for Different Races

The Florida State Flag

In its official strategic plan, Florida’s Board of Education projected its goals for the next few years. The document set targets for the percentages of students the board hopes will be at grade level in the near future. But then it further breaks down those targets. By race.

Take a look below (or view the full document here):

 1.3	  Percentage of students  scoring at or above grade  level on statewide English  Language Arts, science,  and mathematics  assessments by subgroup  to reduce the  achievement gap   Current  (2011-12 unless noted) Reading:  • American Indian 55%  • Asian 76%  •	 Black/African American  38%  • Hispanic 53%  • White 69%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 46%  • English Language  Learners 33%  • Students with Disabilities  29%  Math:  • American Indian 58%  • Asian 82%  •	 Black/African American  40%  • Hispanic 55%  • White 68%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 48%  • English Language  Learners 41%  • Students with Disabilities  32%  2017-18 Goal  Reading:  • American Indian 82%  • Asian 90%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 81%  • White 88%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 72%  • English Language  Learners 72%  • Students with Disabilities  78%  Math:  • American Indian 81%  • Asian 92%  •	 Black/African American  74%  • Hispanic 80%  • White 86%  • Economically  Disadvantaged 78%  • English Language  Learners 74%  • Students with Disabilities  72%

Now you can see right there in the chart that this was driven by good intentions. In terms of raw percentages, Florida’s plan is an ambitious one, looking for around 20-30% boosts in each subgroup. And while the differences in projected percentages between the different subgroups is disturbing, the differences in the current percentages is much, much more disturbing. Clearly the people on the board thought that by pointing out the harsh realities of the achievement gap, they’d be better positioned to fight it.

Now, I can understand why you’d want to point out the numbers in the second column. Those are terrible numbers. 38% of African-American students in Florida are at grade level for reading. That’s tragic. What I don’t understand is why we need that second column. It follows up the first awful statistic with, “…therefore it’s OK if we can only get 3 out of 4 students up to par.” How does that help anyone?

The closer you look at the projections, the more troubling the discrepancies become. African-American students currently have a 9% higher rank than students with disabilities in reading, but the board’s goals are to bring the students with disabilities 4% ahead. What data could that possibly be based upon?

It doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to see how this could become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect? It states the greater the expectation placed upon a person, the better that person will perform. Conversely, the lower the expectations, the worse the performance.

The problem with this plan is that it doesn’t simply tell teachers, “hold everyone to a much higher standard.” The document says “92% of Asian students and 80% of Hispanic students should be at grade level for math.” So the teachers hear, “the Asian students will be better at math.” If the public school system sends out documents lowering teachers expectations of certain groups of students, the teachers will project those lowered expectations on to the student. And, according to the Pygmalion effect, students being held to lower expectations are more likely to underperform.

For the record, this has nothing to do with teachers, or even the members of the school board, being bigots. It’s an institutional form of bigotry. It’s setting up a system that places a lower value on the success of certain students. It’s just hard to see that when it’s buried beneath good intentions.

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