The Problem with Algebra

A few months ago, with little warning, Sarah was assigned a basic Algebra class when the current teacher took the opportunity to move to another program in the school.  Unfortunately, this class came with more issues than her physics classes.  80% of the class was failing, most likely because many of the students slept through every lesson.  But Sarah did her best to help these students learn as much as possible in the little time left in the semester.  And she was proud of the students who were willing to accept her help and succeeded in boosting their grades.

After hearing of all the problems that came with her new class, I arrived home two days ago to a distressed Sarah. Her Algebra students had taken their end-of-course exams a few weeks before and she had just received the disappointing results.  Only 20% of her class had passed.  Only six out of 29 students.  But what upset her even more was which students had failed.  Five of her top students had failed.  By less than 5 points.  Which meant they now would need to retake the exam until they passed, or they wouldn’t graduate.  All because of one test.  Now Sarah had to go back to the students’ parents and explain that even though they did well in her class and understood the concepts, they still would not get credit for the class.  Because they missed passing the exam by less than 5 points.

I was very frustrated when I heard this.  What was the point of receiving grades in the class if everything relied on passing one exam at the end of the year?  Might as well just have no exams during the rest of the year if they don’t count.  And sadly nothing will be done to determine why these five top students didn’t pass the test, even though they obviously understood the concepts while in the class.  Instead, they will be forced to take the test again until they get the necessary score.

And then Sarah told me what type of tests these end-of-course exams were: multiple choice – the worst kind of exam to judge whether or not the student actually learned the material.  Because the answer’s already there.  The students just need to make good guesses and little thought is required.  A student could pass and not know how to do a single problem.  So how is this fair to the students who worked and studied for the class, but still couldn’t pass the standardized test? It isn’t.  And now these students are left behind when they shouldn’t be.

My high school doesn’t require end-of-course exams.  I’m glad they don’t; the exams don’t help determine whether or not a student understands the material.  That’s why there are grades – they show exactly how much time and effort is put into the class.  So why are the class grades good enough to show student progress in my high school, but not Sarah’s?  And, ultimately, why does Sarah’s school require end-of-course exams and mine doesn’t?  Why is there a difference in how student proficiency is determined?  There shouldn’t be; all states need to have a national standard.  Are class grades an acceptable a good measure of a student’s understanding of the material?  Or are tests the only true measure of how much a student has learned?

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Algebra

  1. AmateurYogi

    That’s so unfortunate for those few students! It’s infuriating that so little a difference in totals can keep such bright students from graduation. I like how you encorporate questions into your writing. Be careful that you don’t use too many, however. Also, watch out for underlining. I say the word one underlined and expected it to be a hyperlink. We’re taught to use underlining for emphasis but in blogging it has come to mean that something is hyperlinked. Try italics. I find that those are helpful when trying to portray emphasis. I also like hyphens. They break up the writing and make the reader pay attention to the comment you’re making.
    I like that you’re using Sarah as a character. It helps to give the scenarios that you’re talking about a human personality. What about writing a letter from her perspective? Or maybe even a stand alone background on Sarah – without mentioning the education issues – so that we can really formulate a picture of her in our heads?

  2. sadikibeme

    I like how you jumped right into Sarah’s story right from the start. I would like to see you describe some of the things Sarah did to help her students. Also, how did her students’ parents feel about their failing grades? This would strengthen Sarah’s connection with your audience and the role you play as her voice. I really connected with what you discussed in the third paragraph. I use to have anxiety attacks due to exams because they would weigh so much more than other course work.


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