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Originally published Saturday, March 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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The Reader's View

Find the area of weakness

Last November, Dr. Cliff F. Mass of the University of Washington complained on these pages that the math skills of students entering the...

Special to The Times

Last November, Dr. Cliff F. Mass of the University of Washington complained on these pages that the math skills of students entering the university have dramatically declined in recent years and that many professors have to "dumb down" their classes to accommodate the change ("Calculus of mediocrity," The Reader's View, Nov. 6, 2004).

I have taught high-school math at Ballard for eight years, and I agree with Dr. Mass; so do the great majority of math teachers here. The National Governors Association education summit has recently taken note of the national scope of this problem.

Competence in algebra is absolutely necessary for success in higher-level mathematics, but our students haven't been taught much algebra in the "Integrated Math" courses of their first three years. Those courses are heavy on more peripheral topics, especially probability and data collection and analysis. As Dr. Mass wrote, they combine these and other subjects in a "frenetic mix" where students spend too little time in one area to learn it well and then move on to something else.

Our textbooks are based on "standards" developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Those standards claim to encourage conceptual understanding and reasoning, stressing learning through problem-solving, as opposed to first learning a concept and then using it to solve problems.

While "problem-based learning" is sometimes effective, it is very time-consuming; its overuse takes time away from learning and practicing the needed algebra skills. In my view, understanding and skills build on each other, and the standards result in less of both.

The WASL, too, is based on those standards. Two recent studies found the WASL particularly weak in algebra. We need to recognize that our students' improving WASL scores have little to do with their readiness for college math. As we direct our curriculum more and more toward skills that are reflected in the WASL, we harm our students' chances for success in college.

The Seattle School District has shown little interest in correcting this problem, and, to my knowledge, neither has the state. None of the needed changes will happen unless college professors or parents (or, preferably, both) demand them.

This can happen. In California, math professors at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley got so fed up with the incompetence of students entering their classes that they pressed for and finally succeeded in establishing more traditional state math standards. Let's do the same here. Dr. Mass has made a good start.

Theodore Nutting is a retired Coast Guard captain who lives in Seattle.

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