This post originally appeared in the 12/12/12 Commercial Appeal.
There I was. A former honor student who had graduated at the top of her class, gotten a 5 on four of the six Advanced Placement exams I had taken, been accepted to all 10 colleges I’d applied to, staring at words I had never seen before: “Recommended for Remedial Math.”
A few days before, I’d sat in a room with 100 other freshmen hunched over a booklet that would determine my pathway at Harvard. I’d always been a good test taker, but this test did not resemble any I had taken before.
Before I went to college, my math classes consisted of a lot of memorization so that we could “plug and chug” to get answers. By the time I got to my senior year of high school, we had all accepted that there was only one way to arrive at an answer and, instead of rebelling as we might have in middle school, simply waited for the teacher to show us the way.
When faced with a test that was designed to measure whether I had a depth of understanding of mathematical concepts — as opposed to whether I could solve problems that were neatly laid out for me — I choked.
Ultimately, I ignored the recommendation. But my path forward was not easy. It required a lot of late nights struggling over problem sets, the help of a tutor and many phone calls to my parents in Memphis for encouragement.
While I passed the class, the big failure for me is that my experience essentially closed the door to any careers that required I have a depth of understanding of math or science. Even though I probably would have still chosen the same route, it was not a choice that I got to make.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to attend the Tennessee Department of Education’s training to prepare educators in grades 3 through 8 to teach the Common Core standards in math. The Common Core State Standards are a set of standards in math and English that were developed to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for the future. These standards are more rigorous and require students to master more critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
As we went through the training, I realized that Common Core is about more than standards. In math, it’s about ensuring that students have a conceptual understanding of math and are able to use appropriate concepts and procedures even when they are not prompted to do so.
Essentially, students must be able to make sense of math problems, keep working even when the problems don’t make sense initially, and then be able to explain how they arrived at an answer and how others might have arrived at the answer a different way.
In Memphis City Schools, the system from which I graduated, only 8 percent of students meet the ACT’s college-readiness benchmark in math. The 92 percent of students who do not meet this threshold will probably take remedial math, delaying their time to graduation and significantly raising the chances that they will drop out of college altogether.
With the increasing importance of occupations in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in our state, we can and must do better for our students.
Going through the training this summer and talking to students this fall about the increased demands they are experiencing in math class — and the fact that they enjoy being pushed to be critical thinkers — gives me hope that our students will now be getting the support they need to make their own decisions about what careers they want to go into.
These experiences have also emboldened me to be a stronger advocate for the Common Core State Standards and shun the naysayers who try to make this a controversial issue.
Common Core represents an opportunity for our state to do what’s right for our students. I’m confident that all of us — principals, teachers, students, parents and community members — will rise to this challenge.