Sunday, June 15, 2014

Math Woes

On Saturday, we conducted our Common Entrance Exam for students who are hoping to gain entrance to our secondary school in September. Seven students sat for the Junior Secondary 1 (7th grade) exam. All of them are currently in 5th grade at various schools in Jos. (For a number of years it has been a growing trend for students to skip 6th grade altogether. Personally, I am not in favor of this at all.)

Our exam consisted of three basic tests:
1) our baseline math exam--25 questions each on basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division to be done in 6 minutes or less.

2) a 20 question math test based on a Nigerian 5th grade math book.

3) Fluency reading--how many words per minute can the student read.

Since I've been doing this for a number of years, I could predict the results even before I marked the tests. Even though I was pretty sure I knew the outcome, I still came away with an incredible sense of sadness.

1) Baseline results ranged from 34 - 75% with the average score being 45%. I watched these 10-12 year olds counting on their fingers or drawing tally marks to add 7+3 or 11 - 4. They have not been drilled to the level where this is just something that they know. In fact, a lot of teachers even encourage counting on fingers and drawing tally marks.

By the way, a student who knows their basic math facts should be able to finish our baseline test in about 3 - 4 minutes with 90% accuracy. We know because we have lots of students who can do just that. But we had to make a deliberate plan to teach the students to know their basic math facts.

A byproduct of knowing your math facts lickety-split is that you feel smart! We have really been seeing the lightbulbs going on with our students--what a joy to behold!

2) The math test results were the most sobering of all with a range of 0- 40% with the average score being 15%. There was not one single trick question among the 20 questions, but most of the questions did have words.

For example:
What is 50% of 500?
Write 63/100 as a decimal.
What is the square root of 25?
If one side of a square is 4 meters long, then what is the area of the square?
What is 4 x 1/2?

3) For the fluency reading, I would expect a student entering JS1 (Grade 7) to be able to read a new passage (5th grade level) at a rate of at least 100 words per minute. Our candidates ranged from 50-150 words per minute with an average score of 87 words per minute.

Here's the really hard part: At the end of this next week we will have to share this information with the parents of these children. These parents have worked so hard to pay school fees for these children for the past 7-9 years (most started school when they were 3). As they have been paying these school fees, they believe that their children are learning what they are supposed to.  They know how much they have sacrificed to be sure their children get an education. These are very difficult discussions to have with parents. And then we will have to tell them that we can't put their child in JS1 (7th grade). We will be offering these children positions in either 5th or 6th grade. Many parents will not be able to accept that. They will simply take their child to another school and get admission into JS1 at that school. We have become known as the school that takes students back a grade or two. A few parents will understand our rationale and our desire to re-build that broken foundation, but many will not, and they will relentlessly push their child through the next 6 years of secondary school, whether the child understands or not. And the child will be no better off for that push.

I am a very firm believer in the foundational learning that takes place during the primary years. There is a common belief here that "anybody can teach primary school." Actually I try to put some of the very best teachers I can find at the primary level because the foundation is crucial to all future learning.