Monday, September 8, 2008

Better At Math Than She Thinks

My wife, Rachel, has decided to apply for a Master's degree program in Public Administration and as a part of the application process she has to take the GRE. Aside from the Rachel's general dislike of standardized tests, she was very worried about the math portion of the test. Rachel hasn't taken a math class since Math 104 - "Quantitative Math" in her first semester of college and generally has a negative view of her mathematical abilities. So when she started studying for the GRE, she was far more concerned about the math section than the verbal or writing sections.

However, when she took her first practice test without any substantial math review, something interesting showed up in the results. She scored higher in the math section than the verbal section by a large margin - nearly 10 percentiles. Sure enough after some review of basic concepts that she had forgotten in the past 4-5 years, her math score went up by 10 more percentiles, making her math score nearly 15 percentiles higher than her verbal score (which also went up on her second try but only by 5 percentiles). Since the GRE is designed to test ability more than knowledge, the message is pretty clear: Rachel is innately better at math than she is in verbal skills even though she has believed (and been told by teachers) the opposite for at least the last 8 years.

To get a bit more background, Rachel was initially identified in elementary school as very good at math. She excelled in grade school math and that carried through to middle school. In high school, however, she had a teacher for freshman algebra who was male, poorly prepared to teach high school math (his bachelor's was in biology ed. and his masters in secondary ed.), and the baseball coach. She, along with many students in the class - especially female students - began to feel they didn't understand the material. With a poor foundation in basic algebra, when Rachel took intermediate algebra as a junior she was unprepared and begin to fall behind. After one difficult semester, Rachel's guidance counselor advised her to switch to a lower-level math class.

Rachel did so and once she was off the advanced math track, her high school math experience went downhill even faster. She took a class titled "AP Statistics" her senior year from a teacher that would often get confused and simply give-up trying to teach certain concepts. That teacher had taken 1 semester of statistics in college and hated it. No one from that "AP Statistics" class actually took the AP Statistics test.

In college, Rachel took "Quantitative Math" as she tried out various options for her major. Quantitative Math is a class designed to be the last math class you ever take. Instead of learning algebra, geometry, or trigonometry as a basis for learning more advanced concepts, this class focused on "practical" math like figuring out percentage discounts in supermarkets and computing interest from bank accounts. After taking it, Rachel was at a dead end in terms of a natural progression in math. She selected a major, Recreation Management, that didn't require any math at all, so she didn't take any more. It really is funny that only applying to graduate school finally proves that the grade school diagnosis of Rachel's potential in math was correct.

So what's the point of this rather long story? We have probably all had our share of really bad high school math teachers and we got through it. And the fact that there is a lot of untapped math ability out there is certainly nothing new.

If nothing else, this experience has shown me two things about math and by extension science education:
  1. While students can overcome poor teachers, it is harder for women who face a lot of unintentional and even some intentional sexism when it comes to math and science.
  2. As an aspiring professor, I need to make a special effort to reach out to those who have a lot of potential in math and science but may not think they do because of poor high school experiences. If we want more physicists, we need to go after those that have the ability but have been told they don't. They will likely be 1 or 2 out of a 100 students in large intro level classes, but they will be be there.


  1. A few things:

    1. Somehow my writing score was higher than my math score on the GRE. (By percentile, I blew the writing section away, somehow.)

    2. When I was in elementary school I was nominated to be tested for going into Algebra a year early, but my scores came back lousy so I had to do pre-algebra like everyone else.

    3. I've been told by teachers I am bad at writing.

    Congratulations Rachel, I am your opposite.

    But on a more serious note, good luck with your Master's degree program.

  2. A few caveats:

    1. The GRE is an interesting test in that it is taken by a lot of engineers/scientists that totally destroy the math section (a perfect score is only ~90% percentile). Thus it is probably not the best gauge of overall math ability since it doesn't produce anything approaching a normal distribution. The value in looking at the GRE is really only in comparison between an individual's scores.

    2. I was supposedly an excellent writer according to some high school and college teachers, but I did quite poorly on the GRE writing section.

    3. I believe that parental aptitude and interest in math/science influence kids much more than teachers do.

    4. Often the GRE doesn't really test what it claims to test. For example, Ohio State did an informal study and found that over a 20 year period an incoming grad student's verbal GRE score was a much better indicator of how quickly a student would get his/her PhD than undergrad GPA or scores on the GRE physics, math, or writing tests (writing was available for fewer year than the other criteria examined, however).

    Basically, this is an anecdote rather than a broad conclusion, but it has been a fascinating experience.


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>