Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Math test

Kentucky teens get 2nd chance

        Kentucky high-schoolers are having problems with math.

        If they're like me, they're wondering how they will remember the quadratic formula when they barely understood factoring. Or binomials. Or the reason letters and numbers got smooshed together in the first place.

        It's no comfort to know the Babylonians were fooling with this stuff in 2000 B.C. I'd call them smarty pants — if pants had been around back then.

        Math is our only universal language, capable of uniting scientists and terrifying journalism majors worldwide. Those who understand its crisp vocabulary of abstraction are better at solving all sorts of problems.

        Or so they tell me. Personally, I wouldn't know, and neither would lots of Kentucky high-school students, judging by the evidence.

        At least they have a chance to catch up. It's called “senior year,” and for a wake-up call, they need only take the Kentucky Early Mathematics Test.

        Created by educators in Northern Kentucky, it went statewide in 2000. Juniors voluntarily take it online each spring. The results tell them whether they're ready for college math.

Take the test

        Anyone can log onto the program's Web site,, and take the practice test.

        Don't laugh. Gov. Paul Patton considers this fun.

        “I just started playing with (the test), and some of it started coming back to me,” he told me yesterday. “We're talking 42, 43 years.”

        Great — writing equations for parabolas just “came back to him.” We math phobics do not need to hear this.

        Mr. Patton had six staff members take the test, too. Then they gathered in his office to discuss the problems.

        “Whether it's my persuasive powers or fear of getting fired, we concluded that all my answers were right,” says the governor, a former coal operator with a degree in engineering.

        Unfortunately, the average Kentucky high-schooler is no Paul Patton.

        On the math portion of last year's California Test of Basic Skills, ninth-graders did slightly worse than the national average, as did seniors on the ACT.

        Part of the problem is the high-school curriculum. Teachers are shackled to the “core content” covered by Kentucky's accountability tests, which aren't aimed at the collegebound.

        In addition, some students skip math their senior year. Then they get a shock in college.

        In 2000, 42 percent of the freshmen in the state's public universities had to take remedial math, compared to 22 percent in English.

        That's a lot of time and expense for zero credits.

Great collaboration

        Enter the Kentucky Early Mathematics Test, which covers algebra and geometry in 30 multiple-choice questions.

        Last year, 3,010 students from 29 high schools participated. On average, they missed 17.6 questions, which means they got a scary letter in the mail.

        At this rate, the letter said, you won't be ready for college unless you take another math class in high school.

        I love this program. It's a great example of collaboration between high school and college teachers, who saw a problem and solved it.

        And wouldn't you know: They're math people.

        Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or at


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