Math and Reading are Fundamental

Jack has a new, thought- and blog post-provoking blogpost entitled Why Math & Reading are Overrated.

I read the post largely as a call for broader assessment of students, both in rating schools and college admissions. I understand Jack’s points, but I would like to suggest that there are good reasons for maintaining a narrow focus on math and reading in large-scale assessments.

Math and reading are fundamental, necessary if not sufficient for success in a broad range of academic pursuits. To deprive children of the opportunity to master reading and elementary mathematics is to severely limit their future options, both in school and in the workforce. To use Jack’s example, weak public speaking skills aren’t likely to prevent a person from successfully completing an engineering degree, but weak math skills certainly will.

I’m no longer sure that there are any other academic subjects or skills, except to some extent writing, for which this is more or less universally true. That is, for any other academic subject, we can identify many successful people with little knowledge of it–geography, history, government, science, art, music, literature, or foreign languages.

Moreover, if something is hard to measure well in a large-scale assessment, we certainly shouldn’t be measuring it poorly with high stakes attached to the results, no matter how highly we value the thing that is hard to measure well.

Consider the case of large-scale writing assessments and the unfortunate effect they have had on writing instruction. There is an inherent difficulty in ensuring consistent scoring for thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of writing samples (or extended constructed responses, if you prefer), necessitating a detailed scoring rubric, followed by teaching to the test (scoring rubric, really), with the horrible result of not excellence, but tedious and formulaic writing (see the five paragraph essay or the 3-5-3).

No doubt that attempts at large-scale assessments of 21st century skills would result in teaching students to produce similarly tedious and formulaic evidence of their capacities for “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, “collaboration”, and public speaking.

Which means, I think, that a narrow focus on math and reading is preferable to more expansive large-scale, high stakes tests in order to allow local districts and individual students as much leeway as possible to shape school programs according to their own educational values and goals.

More than that, I think that a narrow focus on assessments of basic competency in math and reading is preferable to more expansive, high stakes tests that purport to be able to measure higher order thinking/depth of understanding or other 21st century skills. I think H. Wu offers a compelling argument for a driver’s license style, basic competency assessment for math and reading. His article is worth reading in its entirety, not just for the details of his suggested alternative, but also for his overview of the limitations of large-scale assessments.

Would the assessments measure all of the things that Jack thinks are important? Nope. But perhaps they could change the conversation we’re currently having about public education and mitigate the worst effects of large-scale, high stakes assessment.


3 thoughts on “Math and Reading are Fundamental

  1. Jack Hostager

    I appreciate this post Karen. Yes, you could say my post was a “call” for broader, more holistic assessment/ consideration of student achievement. In the back of my mind, I was thinking college admissions in particular since that’s something that’s going to start affecting me soon, but it’s something that applies to educational policy and really our culture in general. Like I said, I agree that basic reading & math competency is, as you say, fundamental. But I disagree that you can be successful by mastering just those two subjects, especially the simple concepts of them that multiple choice, high stakes tests can measure.

    There is a huge gap between the reverence we give high stakes tests and the relative importance of the skills they actually measure. Wu is right that NCLB and high stakes testing right now is “too complex and tries to accomplish too much.” My post is not necessarily advocating for changing the test, but that we stop deifying them as if they can capture the entire student. Ideally, high stakes tests would be redone to only attempt to assess basic competencies as you suggest, then we would make the even bigger shift of treating them like it and looking to other measures to truly gauge a student’s preparation for engineering or whatever life path they choose.

    1. Karen W Post author

      Ah. I feel for you on the college admissions thing. There has been a lot of talk about that topic at in the past two years (if you aren’t too stressed out already!). At the most selective schools, it seems to be a terribly mysterious process (I think one commenter finally concluded that a straightforward lottery would be more fair, and easier to cope with).

      One interesting critique I have seen is the disconnect between qualities faculty of various departments would select for, and the ones that the admissions office is actually selecting for–or says that they are selecting for, but who really knows?

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