Last June, only 30% of high school seniors in New York taking the Math Regents exam passed it. (In New York, passing the Regents is a requirement for graduation.) The test included such topics as algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. The failing percentage is not as devastating as it seems since students can take the exam at the end of their sophomore (or even freshman) year, and if they fail can try repeatedly to pass it. In fact, 81% of the freshmen passed the test. Nevertheless, the results were so embarrassing that school officials nullified the test. (One way to leave no child behind.)

What does all this mean? You don't need to know algebra and geometry to be a brain surgeon, or argue cases before the Supreme Court, or win a Pulitzer Prize, but you do need to know them to graduate from high school. Does this make sense? Should potential in one field be thwarted by lack of potential in an unrelated field? In fact, very few professions require a knowledge of algebra and geometry, not to mention everyday life needs. So why is it a graduation requirement? Has the present shortage of hi-tech personnel warped how we value mathematics? Few will deny that proficiency in basic math should be required of all graduates. But what is basic math? Today's students have less time to learn what used to be basic math because they must also learn "advanced" math. The availability of the calculator exacerbates this problem. It is not unreasonable, therefore, that more students today have trouble learning really basic math.

The seniors that failed the Regency test were taking it for the second or third time. Obviously, they had a low aptitude for the subject. One can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been better for these students to use the added time spent on algebra, geometry and the like to instead examine more mundane subjects, such as how to balance a checkbook or create a budget. Wouldn't these students gain more from being taught credit card implications, for example, instead of being taught how to bisect an angle or construct a congruent triangle or knowing which polygons can be used to make a tessellation? Wouldn't they benefit more from studying the economic and medical benefits of a healthy diet or from an examination of renting versus buying instead of learning about reflex angles, obtuse angles, vertical angles, supplementary angles, or the difference between a heptagon and a hexagon? Maybe so, but under today's rules they wouldn't graduate. Is there a conflict between getting a degree and getting an education?

In New York, the entire testing program is being re-examined. Students will not be the only ones being tested; the gurus who write the questions will be under scrutiny as well.

John Schwarz