Math-free diplomas do students no favors

The News TribuneJuly 18, 2013 

Washington’s new graduation requirement for math has begun to bite, preventing almost 7,000 of the state’s high school seniors from getting their diplomas in June.

That may reflect on the schools or students in question, but it’s no argument for softening the requirement by handing out waivers and exceptions. A standard ceases to be a standard if you don’t really have to meet it in order to graduate.

Washington is now in the 20th year of an effort to make its high school diplomas worth more than the paper they’re printed on. Traditionally, students were entitled to wear caps and gowns if they did nothing more than earn Ds in enough classes for enough years. The diploma merely certified that they’d done their time.

Since 1993, the state has been developing actual exit exams – tests students must pass to prove that they’d actually mastered a body of knowledge. The math requirement has been a long time coming: A passing score – or portfolio demonstrating equivalent skills – became mandatory only this year.

The only thing particularly rigorous about the exam is that it must be passed. The Class of 2013 could clear the bar by demonstrating competency in either first-year algebra or geometry.

The content is almost rudimentary. The Algebra 1 test, for example, requires students to display some ability to handle simple algebraic equations, fractions, roots, compounding effects and other basic concepts of workaday math.

Critics of the standard seem to think students won’t need these skills if they aren’t headed for college.

It’s true that some may never again have to calculate the volume of a sphere or solve for x, but the mental discipline such exercises require is necessary to earn a decent living in the 21st century. Difficulties with the Algebra 1 test aren’t necessarily just about algebra; they often reflect a student’s failure to learn even more fundamental arithmetical skills taught in elementary and middle schools.

Most high-paying good jobs require the math itself – especially for the non-college-bound.

Electricians, auto mechanics, technicians and many other blue-collar workers must know Algebra 1. Electricians routinely use algebra. The old spot-welder is often now a specialist who programs and operates the robotic system that does the actual welding.

Washington seniors who couldn’t clear the test for graduation this year can stay in school and keep at it until they do pass. That’s a tough path, but it’s easier than walking off the stage with the illusion that life will be kind to someone without a real high school education.

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