High School Students And Lab Rats

High School Students And Lab Rats
Debra J. Saunders
Friday, March 12, 1999

MELISSA LYNN was shocked when she discovered that she placed in the bottom 1 percent of the University of Michigan math placement test. She had graduated from the affluent high-achieving Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., with a 3.97 grade point average and A’s in math.

Lynn blames Core Plus, an experimental math program — with an emphasis on writing about math and working in groups — funded by the National Science Foundation. “It had very good intentions and wanted you to apply real principles to real life scenarios, but it was missing the crucial element of algebra,” Lynn said yesterday.

Gregory Bachelis, a math professor at Wayne State University and parent of a student in Lynn’s school district, wanted to know if Lynn’s experience was typical. He decided to do his own survey. He sent questionnaires to all 1997 graduates of Andover and the other Bloomfield Hills high school, Lahser, which has similar demographics but a traditional math program.

Bachelis heard from 112 out of 228 Andover grads, 67 of whom were Core Plus alumni; 30 percent of Lahser students responded.

R. James Milgram, a mathematics professor at Stanford University, has written a paper on Bachelis’ findings. Milgram found the following.

— Only two Core Plus grads (out of 67) reported taking calculus in their first year of college, 11 out of a similar group of 41 Lahser grads took calculus; 46 Core Plussers ended up in remedial math, compared to 18 Lahser grads.

— The average math GPA for the Core Plus grads was 1.9, 2.6 for Lahser students.

— The average SAT Math score for Lahser grads was 59 points higher than Core Plus.

As one Core Plus survivor who was placed in remedial math wrote, “I am the epitome of mathematical ignorance in a Top 10 high school in the country with a 4.0 in math.” Student comments paint a picture of students who worked hard but foundered in college math. Andover Principal John Toma takes great exception with the study. He attacked Bachelis’ bias. Bachelis was a critic of trendy math before the survey. Asked about Melissa Lynn, Toma responded, that the University of Michigan “admits that they’re going to change the placement exam because it’s flat out outdated.”

Andover allows students to opt out of Core Plus. Only 55 out of 840 do so, which shows that someone must like Core Plus. Although Lynn says she didn’t opt out because she would have had to take a bus to Lahser for math and that conflicted with her schedule.

Toma noted that studies should not rely on students to give their SAT scores and grades, that the more reliable studies get that data directly. He sent me a University of Michigan memo that reportedly checked grades and found that “reform” math students scored “nearly half a grade higher“ than traditional math grads. But the survey failed to differentiate between reform students and non-reform students, lumped them by school, provided no specific GPAs, no school names and no number of students tested — it lacks credibility.

That is not to say that the Bachelis/Milgram study is without problems. It could be that only the angrier kids responded. Some may have misstated their scores.

Still, the anguish that one reads in the student comments should not be ignored. “I cannot even do basic math calculations,” wrote one grad. Wrote another: “Although I did well in high school math, I feel I don’t understand basic math concepts well enough to keep up in college.” Some had to take math courses for which they could not even receive college credit.

Milgram is most appalled at the ethics behind Andover’s math experiment. He believes that parents should have been warned and students given more opportunity to get out. Instead, public schools too frequently give students about as much choice as lab rats have. None.