Basic math is all we need

TV stories and articles about our state-based Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) frequently show up in myriad media newscasts.

Parents of school-age children know this acronym as well as their favorite church prayer. But some have likened the WASL pronunciation to the sound of fingernails screeching across a classroom blackboard. And more than a few alienated students utter expletives when they discuss the new graduation requirement.

Perplexingly, students are allowed five chances to obtain a passing score. Holy smokes, the famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner trained goldfish in fewer trials!

The WASL concept gained traction in the 1990s. However, pre-test results not only shocked Seattle school administrators, it also scared the heck out of school principals who erroneously thought their students were actually being prepared for jobs and adult life. The tiny percentage of so-called "passing" students forced the district to rethink their curricula. The No Child Left Behind national legislation requires schools to be accountable; our statewide WASL is the designated evaluation tool for measuring school success.

But can our current high school graduates even demonstrate basic arithmetic knowledge let alone pass the semi-sophisticated WASL? Do they truly possess the most basic computational skills which our grandparents completely grasped after graduating from elementary school. An illustration/example is in order.

I administered a simple, pragmatic, easily scored test of basic arithmetic skills which I pilot-tested at a Seattle-area school. My students were enticed with extra-credit so they'd give it serious attention as opposed to chucking it into the waste basket as another meaningless achievement test.

I incorporated a ubiquitous McDonald's fast food menu as the basis of this experiment. In Part I, students were instructed to compute, without using a calculator, the total cost of one Big Mac hamburger, one small drink and one small order of French fries. Part II required an increase in skill level: "What change will you receive from $20 if the local sales tax was 8.8 percent? Show all work."

Would you not agree that this exercise represents basic math skills needed to successfully participate in our society? Taxpayers would be more than pleased if all high school graduates could successfully compute these most fundamental arithmetic skills-after all, they paid hefty levies for 13 years and rightfully expect results.

The math skills needed for successful completion of this 15-minute exam have been taught and re-taught several times by the time a student completes seventh grade. This diagnostic test requires selective reading, addition of three numbers, multiplication using percents and basic subtraction skills.

But, sadly, only 36 percent of the math students passed.

Have you recently viewed the two financial TV commercials touting their new ways to enable you to save money? They are wonderful campaigns which challenge viewer's computational abilities.

Bank of America calls their program, "Keep The Change," and it's deceptively provocative. It appeals to our inborn desire to painlessly save money. The commercial purports that the bank will round up to the nearest dollar all purchases and deposit the change into a savings account. The ad shows happy, smiling faces bragging how they saved hundreds of dollars. It's easy, the ad insinuates.

Yeah, sure, I thought.

The American Express "One" campaign uses percentages to court us into saving money, ostensibly without us being bothered. They promise to compute 1 percent of all debit card purchases and deposit those monies into a savings account. "How easy is that?" their ad asks.

Of course American Express doesn't point out that the person's original bill just increased by an equal amount.

If I were still teaching high school math students, I'd incorporate these two TV commercials in conjunction with my McDonald's Menu Test. The contemporary tests would ask the student:

"Compare two families participating in the Bank of America Program. Family A's purchases are all priced exactly the same: $10.01. Family B's purchases are all priced at $10.99. Which family would save $250 the fastest? Show all computations and explain clearly. Discuss the implications of your answer."

The accompanying problem using the American Express ad would demand: "Show/demonstrate how you'd most efficiently save $250 using this plan. Calculators are permitted."

Finally, the student would: "Explain which financial program, Bank of America or American Express, would you join and why?"

Having such an open-ended question would reveal the level and breadth of the child's understanding of skills the WASL Test purports to measure.

The usage of such simple, pragmatic, easily scored and inexpensive examinations should satisfy all concerned parties, including the Department of Education. Indeed, it should satisfy the requirements of our state of Washington's Office of School Superintendent, and employers should be ecstatic. Parents should be very pleased, and taxpayers in general would feel their tax dollar was well spent.

Let's get back to the basics!

Bernie Sadowski is a retired math teacher living in Magnolia. He can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]