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92 percent of high school seniors lack basic math skills

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Oct. 20, 2008) – Many students leave the Guam Public School System with poor math skills to face fewer job options and smaller salaries.

According to recent Stanford 10 test scores, more than 90 percent of high school seniors for the last four years have had "below basic" math skills. SAT 10 standards define below basic as having "little or no mastery of fundamental knowledge or skills."

Last year, local seniors struggled with specific SAT 10 questions about mathematical concepts, algebraic equations and measuring graphs, slopes and lines, according to an item analysis of the entire school district.

According to the school system, 92 percent of seniors were classified as "below basic."

The decline in math scores was not restricted to a single grade.

The number of students without basic skills rises steadily as they progress to higher grades, the results from last year show. By third grade, more than 50 percent of the school system's students score below basic.

GPSS Superintendent Nerissa Bretania-Shafer said there was cause for concern.

"We should be worried because we have ... one goal," she said. "Our students should graduate from high school prepared to enroll in post-secondary education or enter into the world of work. So, in all work areas, no matter what, you've got to have math skills."

Recently, some of Guam's professionals said students' shortcomings with math could doom them to tinier paychecks.

Alicia Aguon, a University of Guam assistant professor of mathematics, said studies had directly linked high school math to income. The higher students climb in their cour

Certified financial planner Carl Peterson said students who leave high school with poor math skills will find many closed doors when they enter the job market.

"We are really robbing the seniors," Peterson said. "We are cheating them out of the potential that they have to achieve lifetime goals, lifetime earning potential, lifetime satisfaction of reaching their potential."

Peterson owns financial planning firm Money Resources Inc. and is a board member of the Guam Chamber of Commerce. He said math skills are essential in the private sector.

To work in business is to work with money; to work with money is to work with math, he said. Also, students will be smarter shoppers and better investors if they can calculate, he said.

"Literally, everything you do in life needs some sort of level of competency in math," Peterson said.

Bill Borja, Nissan Guam's human resources manager, said math is important in nearly any industry, even where it isn't obvious. He said applicants who lacked basic math skills may be restricted to entry-level positions.

Inevitably, an employee will be asked to use math, he said.

"Especially when you are dealing with customers, if you can't answer basic math questions, it reflects negatively on the company. ... You never know when the situation will come up," he said.


Aguon said the key to getting students to embrace math is to engage them with math mysteries, not math problems.

Students would respond better to a simple challenge -- such as how much wallpaper is needed to cover a wall -- instead of letting them plow through a geometry worksheet, she explained.

"Mathematics is a way of thinking," she said. "With more math, your possibilities become endless. I'm not talking about being a mathematical genius, just a thinker. Students must think, 'Here's the math, now what do I do with it?'"

Christopher Callaway, who teaches algebra at John F. Kennedy High School, thought students responded better to more engrossing word problems.

Callaway said simple, repetitive computation can teach skills, but quickly grows stale. He said students would find calculating slope much more rewarding if it were the slope of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

"I don't necessarily think we need less of the procedural problems, because I do see a lot of deficiencies, particularly in Algebra 2," he said. "But I do see a real lack of word problems. And (students) don't get enough of them so when they come to one they don't feel very confident."

Studying scores

The SAT 10 results aren't easy to interpret.

Despite the alarming number of students who are categorized as lacking basic skills, other forms of measure suggest Guam's students are average.

The SAT 10 data provided by the Guam Public School System also plotted students on a bell curve. They landed in a range deemed "average," with 54 percent of all other students tested.

And according to SAT 10 "scaled scores" -- which award students points when they get questions right -- Guam's students fall just below the national average. Guam's seniors scored a 698 in math; the national average is 706.

Bretania-Shafer questioned if the national average was really good enough.

"Now, should I feel comfortable as a parent and say, 'Oh well, the other students in the states also didn't have the greatest math skills?' No," she said. "We should not be gauging the evaluation of our child's preparedness for life based on other students. It should be based on what's required out there in the world of work."

But students' performance levels aren't a perfect way to study Guam's students either, Bretania-Shafer said. The school system and SAT 10 don't specifically agree on what to teach.

According to GPSS curriculum standards, posted on its Web site, seniors should understand "advanced and abstract ideas in algebra, geometry and trigonometry." SAT 10 and GPSS standards don't align.

Simon Sanchez High School Principal Lou San Nicolas said she didn't trust the performance level results.

San Nicolas said the results gave no definition of what "below basic" meant or which skills to improve.

"It doesn't tell me much as far as what skills should we really be focusing on," she said.

When SAT 10 scores were released, JFK Principal Ulric Mark said he put little stake in the performance level results also, specifically because it was unclear what skills were tested and who set the standards.

Instead, San Nicolas said most principals work from an "item analysis" of their students, which lists how they tested on specific kinds of math problems.

The analysis can highlight a specific skill -- like fractions -- and show how many students struggled.

Math and culture

Guam Federation of Teachers President Matt Rector, a former math teacher, said some students struggle with the SAT 10 math questions because of cultural differences.

"It's like giving directions on Guam. We don't say, 'You go 1.2 miles and take a left.' We say, 'You know where that coconut tree is?'" he said. "We have a different way of dealing with numbers and spaces on Guam."

Rector felt students might be better served by a test that was attuned to Guam. The SAT 10 is a "norm reference test," which measures students against a pre-set national standard.

Rector suggested a curriculum test that was created locally. If the community supported it, the test could focus on balancing a checkbook instead of calculus. Instead of trigonometry, students would learn how to do their taxes.

Rector, who is running for senator, said students should still be required to learn algebra and geometry to graduate.

San Nicolas also supported a curriculum test. Bretania-Shafer said a test aligned to the local curriculum should be in place by next year.

Peterson said he "could not disagree more" with Rector's suggestion that Guam's students had a cultural disadvantage on the SAT 10.

Peterson asked: Why then do private school students struggle less? Unlike history or social studies, he said math is a universal language independent of culture.

"One plus one is going to equal two no matter where you are," he said.

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