What should be on a high school exit exam in mathematics?

Personally, I think an exit exam for school (an exam a student needs to graduate from secondary school) is not necessarily the best way to determine if a student has been prepared by their school. That aside, some of sort of assessment of what a student has learned from their school, whatever form that would take, should satisfy an important criterion; that the student is somewhat prepared for the challenges that life will throw at them.

A typical high school exit exam is testing a student’s preparation for one component of life, specifically college academics. It seems obvious to me that this narrow definition of "preparation" doesn’t actually prepare students for the challenges of life. A student could quite easily pass the NY Regent’s exam in mathematics, any of the IB mathematics exams, their SAT, and any number of other standardized exams, and not know a lick about how to apply the mathematics they are learning in school to solving problems they will encounter in life.

While this shouldn’t be the only goal for mathematics education from K to 12, it seems to me to be a minimal goal, and one which at which we are failing quite dramaticly. Some evidence of this failure is seen by our mostly innumerate public who; lack basic literacy of graphs & statistics, are largely mathphobic, do not understand probability (casinos are good evidence for this), and generally only use relatively simplistic mathematics in their day to day life for problem solving. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching how to do a calculation for it’s own sake, or for sharing some of the beauty and power of mathematics, but it should be framed by the notion that our education of mathematics is intended for a greater purpose. If we only focus on the 4 years people spend in college, we do a disservice to the decades of life they have after college.



  • While I agree with you on the math, I would argue that we often do a poor job with the students who are prepared for college academics. I’ve seen several bright students fail their first year of university/college because they aren’t prepared to cope with life on their own. However, it feels overwhelming to prepare them for post secondary, life, parenting, voting, healthy living, retirement ….. not that we can’t and don’t try.

  • David Wees wrote:

    If the students were bright, then they probably had the academics down-pat, what they lacked was the initiative to learn on their own, out of the scrutiny of a teacher’s eye. I remember that this was very difficult for me to learn, and that I nearly dropped out of school as a result.

  • Christina Henson wrote:

    Hi, My name is Christina Henson and I am a student of Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama.

    Of all of the courses I will be teaching as a future educator, I am most excited about teaching math. This is a result of my previous thirteen year career as a mortgage loan officer. I have seen from first hand experience how finance affects an adult’s life. So, in regard to testing for math skills right as an eighteen year old is about to walk out the doors and into the world; I don’t know that it would benefit the student much in a pass/fail scenario. If the test is for data for the school, maybe there is a valid reason to give one.

    Instead, I believe we should give students valid reasons why they should learn and be interested in math at an early age. We should do exercises in budgets, credit, interest rates and taxes when they are young. Students must learn that taking responsibility for finances is smart and easy. It does not make you a nerd, and it is not just for people who are “business minded”. Math is for people who need food, shelter and a car!

  • Brittany wrote:

    Hi, My name is Brittany and I am a student in Dr. Stranges EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. I think you make an excellent point. The exit exams only look at one part of a students life and doesn’t address the other issues they could encounter in life. I feel like we should prepare the student and help them apply whats learned to schooling. I enjoyed reading your post and look forward to reading your blog more often.

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