6th Grader on a 10th Grade Math Level: The Importance Of Mastering Basic Skills

mastering basics

6th Grader on a 10th Grade Math Level: The Importance Of Mastering Basic Skills

Two days ago, I had the pleasure of administering an achievement test to a 6th grader who enrolled at One On One Tutoring Service since she was in the 3rd grade.  For privacy reasons, we will call the student Susan.  When Susan came to One On One Tutoring in the summer of 2008, she was in the 3rd grade and functioning on a 2nd-grade math level.  We recommended that she complete 40 hours of instruction to target her learning gaps by using systematic, direct instruction in a one-to-one setting.  By the end of the summer, she was on a 3rd grade instructional level in mathematics.  Her mother enrolled her at One On One Tutoring Service every summer after that.  This summer, after grading her assessment for her to begin instruction, I was pleased to see her functioning on a 10th-grade level even though she is currently in the 6th grade and going into the 7th.  It was evident by her test results that math no longer was a problem area for her.  The question is, how was she able to make such a remarkable leap in just three short summers?  Well, to answer the question, we must first understand the landscape of education today. 

When I was in school in the ’80s and ’90s, teachers made sure we mastered mathematics computation basics.  When I refer to “the basics,” I mean addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  I knew all of my multiplication facts in the 2nd grade.  I knew how to divide with one and two-digit divisors in the 3rd grade and understand and compute with fractions by the 6th grade.  By the time we moved into higher-level mathematics, I had understood new material taught to me because I had already built a solid foundation.  I did not have to be retaught how to multiply, divide, or work with fractions as it is necessary to work with higher-level math skills.  I was able to keep up with classroom instruction because the building blocks were already in place.

Fast forward to my adulthood as an educator.  I have worked with countless students in mathematics who are in junior high or high school trying to learn higher-level math but are unable to because they never mastered basic skills.  Today, students in elementary school are allowed to use calculators.  No longer are students required to master basic computation skills before moving on to higher-level math skills.  Studies show that there has been a steady decline in student gains regarding computation skills since the 1980s.  Although many reasons contribute to this, it is important to understand the necessity of mastering these basic skills early on in a student’s elementary years.  The fact is, students who have not mastered basic whole number computation by the end of the 4th grade are more likely to struggle in mathematics. 

When Susan came to One On One Tutoring Service in the summer of 2008, I made sure that her learning path focused on building a solid foundation in her basic skills.  Although today’s curriculum covers a broad range of math skills, we only focused on addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  The same applied the following summer until she demonstrated mastery.  We then moved on to fractions, which she worked on until she demonstrated mastery as she advanced in grade level.  By building a solid base, she understood and applied newly taught math concepts in school without much frustration. 

According to (Loveless 2003) and I agree wholeheartedly, basic skills are important because:

1.) Basic skills serve equity.  The black-white achievement gap expanded in every computation skill area in the 1990s due to a lack of focus on teaching basic skills.  When basic skills are not taught, the least privileged in our society, those who cannot afford tutors, computer programs, or academic summer camps, suffer.

2.) Basic skills are necessary to advance in math.  Basic skills are a floor, not a ceiling.  Students must learn arithmetic so that they can move on to more demanding mathematics.

3.) Basic skills predict adult earnings. Skills and knowledge students learn in school are correlated with success later in life.

In conclusion, parents must understand the importance of a solid foundation in mathematics and reading.  Unfortunately, the demand for today’s curriculum does not allow adequate time for teachers to ensure that all students master their basic skills in mathematics.  Parents must realize that school is not the only solution to a child’s education. There are outside sources such as One On One Tutoring Service that will work diligently to ensure that their children are fully prepared to succeed in school.

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