Most skills improve with practice, and math is a skill.
With that in mind, the approach to introductory algebra classes at Southridge High School in Kennewick has captured our attention.
A new assessment system for Algebra 1-2 involves quizzes and tests and lots of them.
It's a far cry from other systems, where students manage to get passing grades without really grasping the material.
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If they show up to class, don't make trouble and turn in their homework, students can get by without ever mastering the basic concepts.
They might not get a great grade, but a "D" is enough to earn credit for the course.
Dismal math scores on standardized state tests and the number of high school graduates taking remedial math courses at our community colleges are arguments for change.
Under the new Southridge system, students have to actually master the math concepts -- and prove it on frequent tests and quizzes.
Homework and class participation points are not enough to carry the day any more.
Oh, and students must get at least a "C" to prove their proficiency. A "D" just isn't good enough to pass.
Instead of frantically cramming for an end-of-unit or end-of-semester test, students test pretty much every day -- but these aren't the punitive exams you might remember from your days bent over a school desk.
Second chances are built into the system. Low scores can be replaced when the student goes back and retakes the test. Instead of rating skills when it's too late, tests become a tool for improving learning.
Without modifying the spelling, the program is removing "exam," "test" and "quiz" from the typical math student's list of four-letter words.
For those with test anxiety, perhaps frequent encounters with the monster will help tame the beast.
The results are already promising.
The goal of math education is not to have the material taught in our schools, but to have it learned in them. That learning is validated when it can be recalled, translated and applied.
Much of math requires that concepts build on each other. If a kid really doesn't get what was taught the first two weeks of school, it's unlikely he or she will be successful in the rest of the course.
And if that gap isn't revealed until the end of the semester, chances are the opportunity to make it up is lost for the year, and perhaps forever.
So what's been the reaction of Southridge students to the stricter standards?
High grades and more of them.
Instead of 70 percent of the Southridge students passing Algebra 1-2 with at least a "D," the school now has 90 percent passing with at least a "C."
Given high expectations and a path to reach them, kids will meet the goal.
At least they have been so far.
The program was initiated last year. Next year those Algebra 1-2 students will take Algebra 3-4. That will be the litmus test.
Their teachers are eager to see if this mastery model for math education has lasting benefits.
We are too.
The new approach makes sense. We'll see soon enough if it makes the grade.