To the Editor:
We have long known there are problems with education in the U.S., as our students fare poorly compared to students in other industrialized nations.
I have a 70-year-old algebra textbook that cannot be used today because it’s too hard. And in 1983 a presidential commission referred to “a rising tide of mediocrity” in American education.
But the warning had little impact. A few years later Rhode Island legislators were feeling sorry for prospective teachers who had trouble passing a test. So in 1991, after several tries, the General Assembly and the governor made it illegal to deny certification to candidates who flunk the teacher-certification test – even repeatedly. That law remained in effect for several years.
It’s a familiar reaction: If students do poorly on a test (or simply fear that they will do poorly), there must be something wrong with the test.
Today, to raise education standards, the R.I. Department of Education has adopted NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) tests. But the requirement that high school graduates show “partial proficiency” on the test has generated vocal opposition. (Some of the questions on English and mathematics are a bit challenging. But a myriad of alternatives also yield a high school diploma for students who can’t show “partial proficiency” – or don’t want the stress of trying.)
On May 14 the Rhode Island Senate joined the chorus, voting overwhelmingly to postpone requiring passage of the NECAP, or any other test, for graduation. Only five senators voted “nay.” This happened less than a week after the “Nation’s Report Card” showed no improvement for America’s 12th graders in reading and writing over a four-year period.
Lest anyone think education in English and mathematics doesn’t matter, consider a few examples:
In 1988 the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a bill that led to the disastrous failure of the Rhode Island Credit Union system. The trouble was that legislators couldn’t understand a complicated English sentence well enough to distinguish between “increasing” liquidity-reserve requirements and “eliminating” them. The cost to Rhode Island taxpayers from the credit union collapse far exceeded the potential cost of today’s “38 Studios” debacle.
Another blundered bill that passed the House called for imprisoning people for 10 years to life for possession of “cocoa leaves.” The sponsor of the bill declared that cocaine comes from cocoa leaves, and no one corrected the nonsense.
Businesses in Rhode Island have trouble finding qualified employees. A machine-shop owner rejects applicants who cannot convert 0.625 to a fraction. A retailer asks potential employees to figure the sales tax on a $100 purchase. Are these questions too tough?
To see a very public example of widespread difficulty with arithmetic, look at almost any Rhode Island taxi. Painted on the rear fender is a schedule of fares so blundered that the company would quickly go broke if passengers paid only the advertised rates. It seems that whomever ordered the printing of those fares didn’t know the difference between 25 cents and .25 cents. (How could the employees of 100 different taxicab companies all get it so wrong?)
The writer is a retired URI professor of mathematics and a retired RI state representative.