Recently a friend told me about her son’s placement test for high school math. Many, many children failed the test; including her son, who is smart and a good student.

The parents were puzzled and asked to see a copy of the test.

They were shocked when it turned out to be fairly rudimentary – simple math such as fractions and percents – math an 8th grader should easily complete.

The problem?

The kids had been using calculators for the last few years, and couldn’t remember how to do the math without them.

I fear this problems is rife amongst middle schools. My kids are both good at math; it’s a class they get “A’s” in without much effort. And both seem to lack common sense math skills. They use calculators at school regularly, and if you ask either of them a question such as “How many eggs are in 2/3 of a dozen?” They will get the answer, but it won’t be immediate. (And the first guess will often be wrong!)

It seems the school assumes, “okay, we’ve mastered this objective,” and allows calculators for those functions, forgetting that math is very much “use it or lose it.”

Another example, the other day I was at our local grocery store and needed some cash back; my items totalled $6.51. I asked the clerk for $15.00 back. She looked confused and said $25? “No,” I replied, “just $15.” She said, “Oh, but how much would that be?”

I was shocked.

The girl was in high school, working at a grocery store and couldn’t add $6.51 plus $15.00?

And the other day I rented four movies with a 50% off discount card. The computer said I owed $11.00. For four rentals? Doubled (pre-discount) that would be $22.00 for movies that rent for less than $3.00 each. I questioned it; yes, the discount card was still good.

The employee looked totally bewildered, no bells rang in her head that this wasn’t a reasonable amount. I literally could not convince her that I was right because the computer screen “said so.” The manager came over, perused the screen and realized that one of the movies had been sold to me, rather than rented.

Where is the common sense? Where is the intrinsic knowledge of numbers and the ability to realize, not even so much the correct answer, but that an answer is not even “in the ballpark?”

As a consumer it’s annoying; as a parent it’s alarming. I want my to children understand numbers, to have a deeper comprehension of math – not just have the ability to punch numbers into a machine and read a resulting answer.

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April 22, 2008 at 8:08 pm |

The same thing goes on at good ol Harvard on the hill…

I have been literally scolded for NOT working out a decimal, percentage, and even a fraction on a calculator. I LIKE to do them on my own, and quite frankly…the calculator functions take more skill and knowledge than just doing the problem on paper.

I remember way back- calculators weren’t even allowed when I was in middle school, and they were only allowed in high school IF you were taking calculus, or physics.

I bought the darn thing at the beginning of the semester, and rarely use it at all…

WAIT…maybe THATS why I’m flunking!!!!

Oh shit!

Kidding, kidding.

Anyway…I totally see your point, I see some kids in my class that would go into a full scale coronary if they were without theirs…

It’s just silly.

April 22, 2008 at 8:42 pm |

Jaded,

I fear my kids will be like those kids when they are in college!

I’m constantly asking them, at home, “is that answer REASONABLE?” Sadly, it’s not a question they automatically think to ask themselves.

And I agree with the lack of calculator use, back in the day we were expected to do all math “by hand” even though it took longer, and I could probably still do long division practically in my sleep.

Jennifer

April 22, 2008 at 8:49 pm |

I remember 4 years ago in my Math 101 (no prerequisites required) class on Bradley, we spent the first 2 months of the class learning how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions and percents. I remember one isolated 2 hour class in which we had to cover, for one student who couldn’t understand, the reasons that 25% was equal to 0.25 that was equal to 1/4.

Looking back on it now, I am glad that I went to a VERY small rural community high school (95 in my graduating class) and weren’t able to really afford calculators beyond your simple basic ones and those were only allowed on tests in Chemistry and Biology. In addition, and I’m not sure if this is still done or not, but we would have to show ALL work on any problems we did in Math, Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy, etc. before we even did the calculations.

Due to this, when I worked at my first job in high school at the Dairy Queen, I rarely used the register to make change. To this day, when I purchase an item and I pay with a bill, I know automatically what the change should be. It took me a while to really appreciate those extra loops I went through as a high schooler, but looking back on it and looking at some of the kids today, I’m more thank thankful for it.

April 22, 2008 at 9:16 pm |

The important part of understanding math is not the formulas or the complex equations, unless you’re a science/engineering/accounting person. The most important part is learning how to think critically and logically. Those are skills that can help you for the rest of your life.

For instance, not making an idiot of yourself and realizing that charging 22 dollars for movie rentals is insane.

April 23, 2008 at 10:16 am |

I love math. And I mean real math … not the bogus number line nonsense and the pretty color the answer stuff. (Another rant from a parent of color blind boys!) In this day and age we are never out of walking distance from a cheap calculator. A calculator is nothing more than a tool … no different than the pencil and paper we write on. The basic concepts of math can be learned without memorizing equations. We have finally gotten rid of the books of tables for logs and trig formulas and use the calculator. We will eventually stop memorizing multiplication tables for the same reason. The ability to understand math and geometry is really separate from the mechanics of obtaining numerical answers. You either understand the concepts … or you don’t. I’m old enough to remember the transition from slide rules to calculators and all the crazy arguments like “what if your battery goes dead!”

April 23, 2008 at 1:28 pm |

I love math, too. And while I agree with Michael about not having to memorize equations (it’s better to know that they exist and where to find them than to memorize them all); I disagree about calculators just being a tool. Used correctly they are, but to some they are used as a crutch, an excuse for not understanding the basics… “I can just use my calculator.” And I think understanding the basics is so essential. Think of all the times you’ve been in the store and your bill comes up wrong; you are unlikely to have a calculator, but if you have good math skills you are more likely to catch the mistake.

Another example, my friend was car shopping, the price quoted on the car and monthly payments were not adding up. She had the basic skills in math to realize that 60 payments of “x” dollars was nowhere close to the total she had been quoted and knew to ask questions. They had added in a bunch of warranties-literally about $7000 over the life of the loan on a $12,000 car! She hadn’t taken a calculator, but had the good sense and basic skills to know it wasn’t a good deal.

April 23, 2008 at 6:09 pm |

M. Davis-

I am very proud of the same thing…I know how to count back change on my own…without the aid of a calc. AND I can do a calculation of what a customer recieves back in change at my current plave of work in like 2 seconds. Yet…the younger of the staff that I usually have to train have to be taught how to do this. When I ask them HOW they don’t know how to do this (nicely, of course) they reply to me: “I never had to do this stuff in school, we just used a calculator…”

I actually trained one girl who…and this is no joke…to this day carries a pocket sized calc in her apron to figure change for customers.

Unbelieveable…

BUT…I’m the dummy because I can’t pass basic algebra. This does NOT compute.

ALGEBRA…SUCKS!

I’ll get through life just fine without knowing point-slope form of an equation, thanks very much!

Sorry, Jen… don’t mean to use to use your blog as a vent machine-just frustrated.

Maybe I’ll post my own gripe about it….could be therapeutic.

April 28, 2008 at 3:41 pm |

I heart math, too. I have my favorite algebra book here at the house (no, I didn’t steal it). Your story pisses me off. I don’t even know where to begin.