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Parents in the U.S. and in Singapore agree on one thing: Today’s math questions are upsetting!

January 5, 2016

Why can’t math questions on high-stakes tests be direct, clear and to the point like in the good old days?!  Some of the math questions on high-stakes annual tests seem vague and apparently written by people with questionable grammar skills.  To many parents it just seems unfair that some questions are not only vague and unclear but to add insult to injury, some seem like they have nothing to do with math.

While in Singapore this past autumn, I witnessed some parental uproar about a particular question on the current national test that all students in Primary 6 (12 year olds) had to answer.  The question was:

How heavy are eight $1 Singapore coins?

  1. A) 6 grams
  2. B) 60g
  3. C) 600g
  4. D) 6kg

January 5- 8SGcoins
Was this a fair math question for a 12 year old?  Or was this more of a MENSA type question trying to find out the IQ of student?

Steven, a colleague of mine in Singapore, has a 12 year old who took the test and had to answer this very item.  I asked Steven what his son thought of the question and how he answered it.  His son thought the question was weird and was pretty certain that this type of question was not “covered” in math class.  While in the middle of trying to figure out what to do he remembered having been in the supermarket with his parents and holding certain fruit and how much that weighed.  He connected that experience with this problem and determined that eight $1 Singapore coins would be about 61g as the other choices made no sense.  Was Steven’s son just lucky to get the correct answer or did he do exactly what the Ministry of Education in Singapore was hoping that all students would do with this item?

All students in grade 6 have to take the high-stakes test called the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE).  Every year the PSLE contains items that upset parents like the coin problem.  A similar situation occurs with some of the math questions on the Common Core tests from both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) which seem confusing, unfair and seemingly not related to math.  Parents here also get upset by these items.

Perhaps the goal of teaching and learning math in the past was to learn a subject that would help us learn higher level subjects.  Today’s standards like the Common Core propose different goals.  Today’s goal of teaching and learning mathematics is to help students become problem solvers in the real world where students make connections to real world experiences and apply what they have learned.  An additional goal is to help students use prior knowledge to learn new knowledge so that they can become better problem solvers.  Ultimately, learning how to become problem solvers through math will help to enable students to become college and career ready.

In the U.S. it is now officially the beginning of the first phase of the high-stakes testing season as many, not all, administrators and teachers across the country make plans and implement strategies and programs to help students prepare for testing.  The reality is that the stakes are high not only for students but also for teachers and administrators.  Parents can certainly help.

As educators, we can help more parents adapt and understand the evolving role that mathematics education plays in the lives of their children.  As adults in the real world we are often faced with problems whose solutions can be found in seemingly unrelated past experiences.  Everyday real life experiences like taking their children to a sporting event or to the mall can be an opportunity to make connections and apply what is being taught in school.  And who knows, perhaps such a mundane thing as a trip to the supermarket may just help a student answer what some say is an unrelated math question on a high-stakes test.

What do you think?  We’d love to get a conversation started on this topic.  Be sure to leave a comment back at the LinkedIn blog area.

by Hoover Herrera
Singapore Math® expert


“My Paper” newspaper in Singapore:
(accessed on November 25, 2015)