Saturday, September 15, 2012


There was some point in junior high school when I stopped understanding math. I kept attending class, did the homework, and got good grades. In high school, I took algebra and geometry and then scored well enough on the PSAT, SAT, and ACT to have been recruited by colleges thousands of miles away from my home in the Appalachia of the West. What the.

Except for geometry (which I loved, I know not why), I did not understand a bit of anything having to do with numbers (as previously discussed here). How did I continue to do okay at something I did not at all understand?

Maybe my happiest moment in college was when I found out I never had to take another math class again ever, not ever, never. Years passed. I graduated. More years passed. I had a bunch of bad jobs, from hostess at Denny's to secretary at an auto repair shop (previously discussed here) to scheduler at a home health agency (where my biggest responsibility was bringing my supervisor a cup of coffee from the stand on the corner and then sitting in her office and listening to her talk about how the divorce was going). I never needed to know more math than what I was pretty competent with, i.e., adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and finding percentages. Whew.

Then after three years of working in the criminal justice system, I decided that crime-fighting was not for me, and decided to return to my One True Love: English. Which would mean grad school, which would mean taking the GRE. I wasn't worried; I'd always kind of liked taking standardized tests, probably because it gave me a chance to do my favorite thing in the world: sit in a corner and read with no one talking to me. That the reading material wasn't always of the finest didn't trouble me. Like gutter winos who drank Night Train, I'd read whatever was available. (Still do. Yesterday while waiting for my daughter at the orthodontist's, I read Alaska Magazine, FORTUNE, and some other rich people magazine.)

So the first time I took the GRE, I did as well as one might expect on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing, and about as poorly as anyone could possibly do on the quantitative reasoning. I was no longer able to pass as someone with a minimally adequate understanding of math. I did so poorly that when I took the GRE a second time, I bubbled randomly for the quantitative reasoning and improved my score by 7%. I don't mean to mislead anyone; this made no significant improvement. If there had been a cut score for far below proficient, that is where my score would comfortably have settled like a little toad in a pond.

I was thinking about this because my daughters' CA STAR test scores came in the mail yesterday. And because I read this, about a grown man who submits to taking the SAT.

As a side note, I'd like to say that one might think this math handicap extends to data analysis, but it don't. I love data. Love it. I love the patterns--sometimes there is even a narrative.

I was reviewing longitudinal test result data for a high school and saw some patterns that might tell a story: a strong majority of incoming freshmen scored in the advanced category, but that there was a steep downward trajectory, with about half as many grade 11 students scoring so well. I have more investigating to do to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions--is this typical of all high school students in the district, state, country, or is this just this school? Could the difference partly be explained by a large influx of lower-performing students at grade 11? What other factors might influence these results?

These might be numbers, but there is a narrative, there are characters, there's a plot with conflict, action, and, one hopes, resolution.

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