13 Dec

Perhaps I’ve become suspicious in my old age.  Perhaps I’m just skeptical.  Perhaps there’s a kernel of anger here.

Got a call from the community college student that I’ve been tutoring.  The student was terribly upset.  Apparently, after numerous assurances by the community college instructor that success in Beginning Algebra was within the student’s grasp, the student came up 0.3 points short of a passing grade.  Failure.

I will admit some doubts on my part:

  • Test performance has been less than outstanding, but make-ups for half credit were possible until the test just prior to the final.
  • Assignments, although there was a due date, were accepted when submitted without penalty except for the assignment that was due on the date of the final.
  • Addition of negative numbers caused confusion, e.g., (-8) + (-2) = ___. [1]
  • Any sort of arithmetic without a calculator was impossible, e.g., 5 x 5 = ___.[2]
  • Add any unknown only complicated the problem, e.g., x + x = ____[3] while x times x = ____[4].
  • Decimals were OK, but fractions were absolutely terrifying, e.g., 25¢ equals what decimal ___[5] and fractional equivalent ___[6] of $1.00.
  • How to convert a decimal into a percentage could be ascertained, e.g., 0.011 is what percent ___[7].
  • A negative number multiplied by a negative number, e.g., -2 time -2 =___[8].
  • A negative number multiplied by a positive number, e.g., -2 times 2 = ___[9].

On at least two occasions, I asked the student why Beginning Algebra instead of another course such as Prep for College Algebra or even a basic course in arithmetic.  Allegedly, placement testing recommended Beginning Algebra.  Frankly, I’m suspicious; however, if the placement test was multiple choice it is indeed possible to have placed high enough for this class.  The student is not dumb.  While working on algebra problems it was evident that the student is an excellent guesser because the student could provide the correct answer but couldn’t explain how that answer to ascertained.  (Perhaps the student’s mathematical background included that math training where close estimations and not exact answers were acceptable.)

I realize that it’s all about enrollment.

I accept that either grants or student loans finance higher education.

I acknowledge that in many instances secondary education is deficient because life skills aren’t taught or, in some cases, not even introduced.

I’m frustrated that students are awarded Certificates of Attendance instead of diplomas if the students can’t pass an arbitrary competency test.

I’m disgusted that as a taxpayer I pay for the same education time and time again either through property and income taxes to support the local school or through income taxes that are allocated for state and federal education grants and subsidies.

I’m angry and suspicious because this students wants an associate’s degree in a field that requires a substantial amount of arithmetic tempered with algebra and, perhaps, just a little calculus.

Was it just about getting another butt in the seat?

Wasn’t there any academic counseling involved to truly evaluate the placement test vis-à-vis this candidate and advise of the mathematical requirements of this academic program?

Why isn’t there a safety net to ensure this student’s success?  This could be early screening to identify students with academic challenges or tutors or academic counselors or procedures to allow students with academic or life challenges additional time to complete assignments.

I’m not advocating that everyone should receive an “A.”  There are already too many students and educators who believe that they are “practically perfect in very way” (Stevenson, 1964), and scream “bloody murder” if they don’t receive an “A.”  We ought, however, to work towards providing some measure of success for these students instead of providing hope and then snatching it away at the last moment.

Just think about it!


Stevenson, R. (Director). (1964). Mary Poppins [Motion Picture].


[1] -10

[2] 25

[3] 2x

[4] x2

[5] 0.25

[6] ¼

[7] 1.1%

[8] 4

[9] -4


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