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Saturday, November 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Guest columnist
Calculus of mediocrity

By Cliff F. Mass
Special to The Times

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With all the recent discussions regarding the public schools, there is one perspective that has been largely absent: the experiences of those of us in the university community who deal with the end product of K-12 education.

As someone who has taught an introductory atmospheric sciences class for over 20 years, my sad observation, and one seconded by my colleagues in several other departments, is that competency in math and science has declined from roughly the late 1970s until now. Many of us have been forced to "dumb down" our classes, particularly those demanding mathematical skills.

Interestingly, the university gave virtually the same mathematics placement test to all freshmen from the mid-1980s until 2000; students' scores declined during this period, objectively confirming our subjective impressions.

Furthermore, increasing numbers of our students have been forced to take remedial math courses prior to starting the normal college curriculum.

Why have math scores declined? One reason is surely the transition to "Integrated Math" in middle and high schools during the 1980s. Instead of teaching mathematical subjects such as algebra, geometry and trigonometry as coherent subjects, with sufficient time spent to master their principles, "Integrated Math" combines them in a frenetic mix that rapidly jumps between these subjects using lots of pictures and real-life examples.

Having helped my children with their lessons, it is clear that this approach doesn't work; another untested educational theory that used our kids as guinea pigs.

The decline in math ability has been paralleled by a darker and more serious trend: a lessening of the personal responsibility, attitude and work habits of many students. A lax environment has spread through our secondary schools, with no-fault test-retake policies and rampant grade inflation. Students expect high grades and when they don't secure them, they often blame the instructor, not their poor attendance or unwillingness to keep up on assignments. Chillingly, their ability to maintain sustained concentration has lessened.

Perhaps we are seeing the result of overindulged students, poorly supervised by harried working parents, who have spent too much time with video and computer games.

It is important to note that the "golden" top 20 percent of the UW student body is as capable as ever — students who are intelligent, highly motivated to succeed and successful despite the system. But for the others, we must ask why they are losing ground, and whether more than money and smaller class sizes is required to address their needs.

Cliff F. Mass is a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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