“In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards.”

— Mark Twain

In last night’s post about a school board member failing 10th grade standardized tests, I may have unfairly slighted our students. In response to a comment in which Rick Roach, the school board member who couldn’t pass 10th grade math, implied that nothing on the test would be of any practical use, I wrote:

As someone who quite regularly has to teach introductory physics to students who struggle with it because they have a shaky grasp of tenth-grade math, I’m really not any happier with the notion of arranging graduation standards around what Mr. Roach thinks of as practical life requirements than I am with the idea of high-stakes standardized testing under the current regime.

In comments, MRW pointed to a public release of the test in question, and having looked at the tenth grade math items, I think what I said was unfair. While we have our share of students who struggle with basic algebra, I’m pretty confident that they would pass this test.

Just for fun, here’s a selection of a few of the problems from the 2006 math test given to tenth graders, the one where Mr. Roach didn’t know how to answer any of them, and “Not a single one of [his friends] said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.” See if you’re smarter than a Florida school board member:

So, apparently, his circle of friends doesn’t include anyone who knows how to work with percentages, statistics, or the sort of rudimentary algebra used in spreadsheets. I’m not sure what professions these people are in, but this doesn’t speak well for Mr. Roach’s social circle.

Now, of course, I’ve cherry-picked these questions, to enable maximum snark, but you can look at the test for yourself at the link above, and see for yourself that the math involved is not terribly difficult. And, in fact, the test writers have done a pretty good job of putting the math into a useful (if occasionally a bit contrived) context, to demonstrate what it’s all for. Maybe whoever selected the questions for him to take pulled out only the most abstract and difficult questions from several years’ worth of tests, but that doesn’t seem terribly likely.

This is yet another demonstration of a problem I’ve been banging on about for years: the innumeracy of intellectuals. Mr. Roach holds three college degrees, and clearly considers himself an educated person, but even a lack of practice at taking tests can’t really explain this level of failure.

The problem is, having horribly flubbed a really basic math test doesn’t shake Mr. Roach’s self-image as an educated person, because it is socially acceptable for an “educated person” to know next to nothing about math. Where in a sane world, complaining that this sort of math is hopelessly impractical and not the sort of thing we should be testing would lead educated people to point at Mr. Roach and laugh (as I’m doing above), In this world, alas, it gets him the central role in sympathetic blog articles hosted by one of the nation’s premier newspapers.

That’s just not right. The problems above are the sort of thing that ought to be a minimum requirement for someone to claim to be educated. Let alone to be making budget and policy decisions for an entire school district. If you’re going to vote in an election, you ought to be able to handle all of the above problems, because those are the sort of basic mathematical operations needed to do a minimal evaluation of any candidate’s economic proposals.

Mr. Roach’s failure to score at a reasonable level on this test is something that ought to embarrass *him*, not the educational establishment. As much as I have problems with the notion of high-stakes testing, I have an even bigger problem with people who believe– and teach our kids– that basic mathematical competence is not a necessary component of education.