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Monday, September 20, 2010

Ethnicity, Racism and Math…

by Nick Diaz

(Originally published August 31, 2010, on
Republished on the Betrayed blog with permission from author Nick Diaz,,
and from John Ashbury, editor and publisher of

In early 2009, I was coaching the MATHCOUNTS competition team at The Barnesville School, then my place of employment. MATHCOUNTS is a nationwide system of mathematics competitions, open to middle schools students in the USA.

Students in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, in public, private, and home schools are eligible to participate. From 1986 through 2009, I coached the math teams at Gov. Thomas Johnson Middle School in Frederick, Middletown Middle, and at Barnesville.

As the four Barnesville eighth graders were getting ready for the upcoming state competition, one of my “mathletes” mentioned that our team didn’t have much of a chance of placing high, because, after all, we didn’t have Asian students on our team. After all, Asian students from China, India, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are inherently good at math, and better than anyone else.

The stereotyping of Asian students goes on, unabated, throughout our society. I consider this to be as racist an attitude as outright negative discrimination based on skin color and cultural differences.

The general attitude is that Asians are good at math because they’re smarter, can learn math much faster, know “stuff” more deeply, and are much quicker at arriving at answers. Finally, Asian students are good at math because, after all, they’re Asian.

Not only children, but also adults, share this bigoted view of the world; this is unfortunate, since two evils emanate from such attitude:

It allows people to believe that scholarly achievement, particularly in mathematics and science, is determined by genes and by ethnic extraction. This is not so; academic achievement is due to hard work and dedication, to focusing on the importance of learning for its own sake, and on being willing to practice, practice, practice…

It gives those of us who are not of Asian extraction the excuse not to perform at a high level in mathematics, science, engineering, or other similar pursuits. After all, Asians are automatically better, so why try?

It occurred to me then that my Barnesville team members deserved an explanation that was based on general mathematical principles. So, I get up on my high horse and began telling my young students to stop the racist talk and bigoted excuses.

If we would take a cross-section of the population of China, India, Korea, or Japan, I bet we could find dumb people, average people, and smart people, all in about the same ratio as ours in North America. Thinking that Chinese are better at math, and that Indians are better engineers – that smacks of racism, pure and simple, and denies a basic American conviction – that people are people, regardless of nationality or skin color.

So, why is it that so many Asians in North America do so well in math, science, and engineering?

Simple! Who comes here to live, either permanently or temporarily from China, Korea, India, etc? Mathematicians, engineers, scientists – at the graduate degree level or higher. These are the people who are even allowed to leave China and study and/or work in North America. The general population doesn't come here – they stay there. Those who arrive here are the physicians, the theoretical physicists, the mathematicians, the engineers, the chemists, the computer scientists, the microbiologists.

These people usually arrive in North America with families. Guess what their kids will be like! Highly intelligent, well-disciplined, focused on learning, from families where learning is considered a sacred duty, and where math and science achievement is considered to be due not to raw intelligence, but to hard work and dedication.

Where are these people concentrated? In Montgomery and Fairfax Counties, suburbs of DC, where many think tanks and research facilities abound. That explains why Takoma Park Middle School in Montgomery County has won the state MATHCOUNTS competition every year since 1986. TPMS is a math/science magnet school in a highly populated area; the staff at Takoma Park and Montgomery County schools can choose who's in and who's out. As one can expect, on any given year, their top team of four students will consist of Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, or American Jewish extraction.

What that means is that we, in general, must get rid of the stereotypical thinking that allows us to justify our obvious inferiority in math and science achievement, and blow it off as "Americans are dumber than Asians because they just ARE!" It's particularly sad when adults, including parents, subscribe to the nonsense and keep spouting that racist line.

This year one of my eighth graders is a Korean exchange student, a very quiet, reserved girl. After one week of school, I can tell there’s something special about her. Despite the obvious language difficulty, she reads the questions carefully, engages her brain, and answers the questions. Reading and thinking properly, quickly, and accurately are the keys to success in mathematics, regardless of the student’s grade level. To be blunt, this Asian student runs circles around the rest of her classmates.

Why is that? Surely because she’s Asian – that’s what many people would say. Perhaps it could be also that she is more used to focusing, and therefore is able to recall the mathematical principles that all the 8th graders had learned in past years, (to be forgotten quickly and decisively), and put them all together and applied properly. Perhaps her parents insist that she do her best, rather than dismiss their children's poor achievement in math by saying silly things like, "Oh, I was never that good in math," or "My child just doesn't have a mind for math" or "Asians are better at math anyway..."

Note from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at Please limit columns to not more than 1,000 words. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pass rates on 2010 state math tests shocking

By Laurie H. Rogers

(Updated Nov. 14 to reflect adjusted scores, per the OSPI Report Card.)

Mathematics is a “gatekeeper” subject. Math guards the “gate” to college, the trades, the military, and entrepreneurship. If high school graduates don’t have sufficient math skills, they cannot pass through these gates.

Washington State’s pass rates for the spring 2010 standardized tests came out this week. I have a few of the math pass rates here, including some for Spokane Public Schools. I hope you’re sitting down.

Pass rates for Washington's 2010 math tests

Washington students: Spokane students:
4th grade 53.7% 59.1%
7th grade 55.3% 55.4%
10th grade 41.7% 38.9%

Spokane Public Schools middle school math pass rates

Chase Garry Glover Sacajawea Salk Shaw
7th: 61.0% 44.8% 44.2% 67.5% 59.2% 50.8%
8th: 49.1% 43.3% 30.6% 69.2% 61.4% 31.2%

Spokane Public Schools high school math pass rates
Ferris Lewis and Clark North Central Rogers Shadle
54.0% 54.2% 27.1% 21.1% 44.4%

Folks, it's bad. But don’t get up from your seat just yet. It's worse than you think. According to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), our students needed to earn slightly more than half of the possible points on these tests in order to pass them.

Grade Points needed to pass: Pct. needed to pass
3 21 out of 34 61.76%
4 20 out of 34 58.8%
5 20 out of 34 58.8%
6 23 out of 40 57.5%
7 22 out of 40 55%
8 22 out of 40 55%
10 unchanged from 2009 56.9%

Washington State’s 10th-grade students needed just 56.9% on their math tests in order to pass, and yet 61.3% of Spokane’s 10th graders couldn’t do it.
I’ll bet you also didn’t know:

  1. OSPI looks at the completed tests first, and THEN decides where to set the cut scores. The State Board of Education approved these cut scores in August 2010, several months AFTER the students took the tests in the spring of 2010. The cut scores moved to fit -- not math standards nor academic content -- but test outcomes.
  2. All of the cut scores dropped from 2009 (thereby making the tests easier to pass), with the exception of 7th grade, which rose 1 percentage point, and 10th grade, which was unchanged.
  3. OSPI considers the passing scores noted above to also mean that students are “proficient” in mathematics. Therefore, a 10th grader is supposedly “proficient” in mathematics if he or she earns just 37 points out of a possible 65.
The takeaway message from these numbers is that our students are completely unprepared in mathematics. Worse, our administrators perpetuate this failing system deliberately, purposefully, willfully, stubbornly. It obviously is NOT working for the students. Despite what administrators like to claim, the math problem is NOT because of poor parenting, unmotivated students, unhelpful legislators, insufficient money, ineffective teachers, difficult social issues, insufficient "professional development," changing standards, or raging hormones. The math problem is because students are not being given enough mathematics, and that is because school administrators stubbornly REFUSE to allow the teachers to teach enough mathematics. Instead, our students are fed a steady diet of pretend mathematics, designed to suck up learning days with busy work, group work, “student-centered” activities, and student-created processes and definitions. These programs do NOT provide students with sufficient usable skills in mathematics. You can see for yourself how well the current programs work.

Parents and teachers: You are being betrayed. The children are being purposefully and persistently miseducated. They are not being given the math skills they need for college, for a trade, for business ownership, or for any postsecondary life that depends on or even uses mathematics. Most are unlikely to ever become engineers, doctors, attorneys, pilots, air traffic controllers, architects, or dozens of other types of well-paid professionals. Recent high school graduates who have not had outside intervention are likely to need remedial math classes before beginning college – perhaps several remedial math classes.

And that brings me to one more piece of bad news. In Spokane, nearly half of all SPS-educated students who take remedial math classes at our area two-year colleges fail those remedial classes or withdraw early. And what are their career options then?

Parents and teachers: Rise up. Take back the classroom from those who have stolen it. Go to board meetings, write letters, call school board members. Hold state and district administrators accountable for this education horror. Make the superintendent and the curriculum department personnel answer to you – specifically, out loud, and in public. And if they can't, if they won't ... call for their resignation or firing.

Meanwhile, please take the necessary steps to save the children. Supplement the math program, homeschool in mathematics, provide the children with tutors, or pull them out of the school system entirely. Do not let public-education administrators squander their futures. To those in Spokane: Please let me know if you plan to speak to the school board. I will do my best to be there, to support you and to cheer you on.

Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is: Rogers, L. (September 2010). "Pass rates on 2010 state math tests shocking." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: