Following my last post, where I wondered what was "wrong with taking college-level courses in college and not before", someone sent me (thank you!) a link to this radio report on, hang on to your seats, the College Board's decision to "roll out a new college assessment exam for eighth graders in 2010." The Los Angeles Times wrote an excellent article on the topic, and includes the quote, by someone from the Princeton Review: "Eighth grade is not the key year for college assessment. That's sixth grade." Why not kindergarten while you're at it? Although the College Board pretends that "This test will help schools identify students who have some talent and could likely succeed if they take honors or AP courses, but have not been recognized," I find myself siding with the critics, who believe this "would just boost the pressures for students considering college" and is a way for the College Board to increase its revenue by taking advantage of the country's obsession with testing.
I'd much rather see some of this energy spent on improving high school education, and that is exactly the goal of three universities leading the NSF-sponsored Project MINDSET (Mathematics Instruction using Decision Science and Engineering Tools). The idea is to design a math course for high school students that is "fully applications-based and problem-driven". Apparently, there is a severe need for that, or - more generally - anything that will help the students do better in math. The authors of the article in the August edition of OR/MS Today, linked above, mention the following question at the third NAEP mathematics test: "An army bus holds 36 soldiers. If 1,128 soldiers are being bussed to their training site, how many buses are needed?" According to the article, only twenty-three percent of the students gave the correct response. (In case you're wondering, the correct answer is 1128/36 rounded up, or 32.)
I felt the authors were doing themselves a disservice by starting the article with grand sentences such as: "Can you imagine high school students challenging their local police chief on the merits of the Poisson process and its impact on staffing 911 and police patrol units?" and "Can you imagine high school women excited about using the principles of queueing theory to petition their state legislature to adopt the public building codes of New Zealand that were designed to reduce waiting times for bathroom facilities at concerts and theater events?" but since the article is intended for the operations research and management science population, I suspect they were trying to address the geeks in us (operations researchers). My main complaint about the report is that it gave no example of this new textbook's contents - it would have been interesting to compare two approaches (the traditional one and the Project MINDSET's one) for the same educational goal.
Much better in my opinion for a general audience (and again, the audience for OR/MS Today isn't exactly "general") is the press release written by Wayne State University to describe the project. It explains that applications of this new "12th-year mathematics curriculum" include "designing school bus routes, finding the best location for a new recreation center, calculating an appropriate automobile insurance policy deductible or evaluating ways to reduce wait lines for public restrooms." In that respect, it reminds me of some of the industrial engineering projects my department runs for the Introduction to Engineering course, which provides first-year students with a hands-on overview of the various majors. It makes sense that, if high school teachers receive the proper training, some of the projects could be completed by seniors. That would fundamentally change the way students think about operations research.
Unfortunately, much remains to be done for this new course to become widely adopted, in particular at the school board level. In the meantime, as another potential funded project, I'd love to see someone create a free web-based assessment exam for students finishing middle school. After all, you don't need a lot of different tests if there is no incentive for cheating and the grade doesn't count for scholarship applications. Maybe if companies like the College Board lose their ability to profit from worried eighth-graders, they will leave those kids and their teachers alone.