It adds up: vindication for Barbie

Poor Barbie.

The lissome ideal of junior distafficity set her elder sisters’ knickers atwist a decade ago with a single innocent, off-the-cuff observation: “Math class is tough!”

That they were the first words she uttered – along with “I like shopping!” and “Will I ever have enough clothes?” – after 30 years of silence only magnified their seeming import, prompting a nation of feminists to brand the doll a bimbo, a traitor to her gender, a vapid blonde stereotype in size minus-5 pumps.

This week, though, she is vindicated. Judging from the most recent batch of WASL test scores, math is tough, or at least tougher than language arts. And not just for Barbie, but for Ken too.

High school sophomores struggled on the mathematics portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, with fully 46 percent statewide failing to show mastery of the battery. Even at Bainbridge High School, its masonry acreep with figurative ivy, an estimated 14 percent of the presumptive class of 2008 chunked the test.

How to explain such results, when our Spartans’ scores in reading and writing were positively Olympian?

While the dismal statewide showing confounded Washing­ton educators, Faith Chapel, assistant superintendent for instruction for Bainbridge schools, notes that even among those island students who didn’t pass, many came this close – within a question or two of success. That suggests that the challenge isn’t so much one of curriculum as individual preparation. “It’s going to be a matter of additional practice,” Chapel said.

On the exam, students are subjected to several score questions gauging their acumen in probability and statistics, measurement, reason and problem solving, and algebraic and geometric “sense.” (You can test your own “sense” on a sample exam online at www.wasl2006.com/sample.html; find out how much math you didn’t take back in the day...) And it’s not just a matter of guessing the right answer among multiple choices; on many questions, students must arrive at their answer through different computational means and then show their work.

State schools Superintendent Terry Bergeson has suggested that some Washington districts may be using texts out of alignment with the types of questions found on the WASL, that too many people don’t think math is necessary for all students (and so don’t push them to take enough of it), and that some students never end up in courses sufficiently advanced that they ever learn the concepts explored on the test. On the latter point, Chapel agrees; the 10th grade WASL asks very specific questions in alegebra and geometry, courses that some island students may not have run into by their sophomore year. To that extent, she expressed confidence that those Sparts who fell short this time will make it in time for commencement in two years.

None of this completely explains the noticeable discrepency between scores in math versus language arts, but it does underscore the need for rigorous math requirements through a student’s four years in high school – not for the sake of the diploma, but the mind.

Math is tough? We hear ya, Barbie. But you’ll thank us for it someday, and tutors are now standing by.

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