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Local view: US adults need math competence

Quickly — if you see a newspaper ad saying, “Buy one, get one 50 percent off,” what is the single-item percent discount from the list price?

Doing stuff like this is the second step up on the ladder of mathematics ability. It is math competence, the ability to use whatever math you need, correctly, both in daily life and in your job. Obviously, different jobs need vastly different amounts.

Most of us have gone from kindergarten through grade 12, at least. In each grade we were taught some math, starting with counting. Then we learned how to add and subtract, then how to memorize multiplication tables, then how to do long division, and so on through quadratic equations and solving 90-degree triangle problems with sines and cosines. There’s one seemingly endless trek of techniques to learn — with drills, homework problems and quizzes — and the answers are either right or wrong.

It’s no wonder studies consistently show American adults fear and hate math more than any other school subject, by a factor of two to one. There are various names for this condition of dislike: “math phobia,” “math anxiety” and “innumeracy,” among them.

Yet the U.S., with its technologically advanced society, desperately needs more people to go into what are called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This is so true that most states, at the urging of the federal government, have set up mandatory standards (“common core”) and yearly tests to see how well their public-school students are doing. In Minnesota, these are called the MCAs, or Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

The latest equivalent international scores place U.S. students in 35th place from the top, down a few rungs from results three years ago.

For how well Duluth students are doing, I looked at an Aug. 26 story in the News Tribune, which included a table of MCA scores for both 2013 and 2014 for schools in Independent School District 709, our Duluth district. At the high school level, which is closest to adulthood, 56 percent of students at East were “proficient” in math in grade 11. Despite that figure, which may seem low, I do not think it is because East students are stupid, that their math teachers are lazy or unmotivated, or that their parents are indifferent to how their children perform in school. It is due to a variety of other causes that should be researched.

The Aug. 26 article also nicely illustrated the concept of math competence. Consider the article’s headline, “Duluth schools show signs of progress in state test scores.” From 2013 to 2014, each score could go up, could go down or could remain the same. The latter possibility is very unlikely, so we are left with up or down, just like flipping a coin. A fair coin flip has an equal chance of getting a head as getting a tail, both 50 percent. If there was overall progress, there should be considerably more up scores (“heads”) than down scores (“tails”). A simple and quick count of up and down scores showed that there were 54 up scores and 52 down scores in school test results. Awfully equal, no? From an objective, rational, mathematically valid point of view then, the headline should have read, “Overall, Duluth schools show no change in state test scores from 2013 to 2014.” Any attempt to isolate subsets of the data to claim gains is spin or hype.

Finally, a Dec. 2 column in the News Tribune written by Duluth School Board Chairman Mike Miernicki said, “Test scores are rising.” If he made this statement on the basis of those MCA 2013-14 scores given in the

Aug. 26 article, he was factually wrong.

William Krossner of Duluth is a retired university professor with 50 years of experience in teaching and/or working in the field of statistics.