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Numeracy: Imperatives of a Forgotten Goal

by Iddo Gal, University of Haifa

Excerpted with permission from "Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America," Copyright (c) College Entrance Examination Board, 1997. All rights reserved.

A key goal of school is to prepare students for life as adults. However, the form and content of this preparation is not at all clear regarding the quantitative side of the adult world. Since numeracy should serve as the primary (but not exclusive) basis for determining the scope, content, and methods of mathematics instruction and assessment at the K-12 level, the challenge to define and understand numeracy is especially critical.

Different agencies employ different "lenses" and make different assumptions about the contexts of people's lives. These sources ... suggest that there are multiple life contexts in which adults may need to deal with situations involving numbers, quantities, mathematical ideas, and algorithmic processes. Examples include:

Results from the recent National Adult Literacy Survey show that relatively few American students graduate from school equipped to handle these diverse quantitative tasks. Further, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown repeatedly over the last twenty-five years that many high school graduates leave school without adequate skills. For instance, only 46% of the high school seniors tested as part of the 1990 NAEP demonstrated consistent mastery of fractions, decimals, percentages, and simple algebra--topics which they should have mastered much earlier.

A growing research literature suggests that many students have trouble transferring and applying mathematical skills in new contexts, in or out of the classroom. These findings corroborate the informal observations reported by many mathematics teachers: too many students have trouble dealing with presumably standard problems that they just "successfully" practiced, once minor aspects of the problems are changed.

U.S. high schools have historically stressed, explicitly or implicitly, students' ability to reach a stage where they can handle abstract, college-related topics such as advanced algebra and calculus. Yet fewer than 50% of all students who graduate from high school enter college, and many of these never study mathematics any further in college. Students who do not cope well with abstract topics--which many high school mathematics teachers view as "real" mathematics--are usually banished into "general mathematics" or "consumer" courses that many educators consider a dead-end and mathematically uninteresting. Such students receive decidedly insufficient attention from mathematics educators.

Being numerate is much more than knowing mathematics, and numeracy is not the same as mathematics. ... Most mathematics problems that students work on are contrived or decontextualized. In contrast, real life numeracy situations are always embedded in a life stream of some personal meaning to the individuals involved. Such situations are rarely emphasized in public discourse within mathematics education.

Iddo Gal teaches in the School of Education at the University of Haifa. Until recently he directed the Adult Numeracy Project at the National Center on Adult Literacy at the University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached by e-mail at iddo@research.haifa.ac.il.

To add your voice to this discussion, e-mail comments, letters, and op-ed articles to: extend@stolaf.edu or click here.

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Last Update: July 17, 1997