My First A ... Almost

We got our tests on matrices back yesterday. Despite all my grief, I got what I thought was an A. "Good job," my teacher said. My first unit test was a boring B. But here it was -- a 93 percent. My pride swelled, then dissipated when my seatmate reminded me that in Fairfax County, that's not an A.

At my old high school in Cleveland, 90 percent would pass for an A. That's the standard in Montgomery County, too, and in lots of other places. But Fairfax students have to earn a higher mark to get an A--94 percent to be precise. Parents here are organizing in droves to get the Fairfax system changed to a standard 10-point scale. They say it puts their kids at a disadvantage when they apply for colleges or scholarships.

A colleague suggested I might not get into the college of my choice. Then, seeing my disappointment, he suggested a B-plus isn't so bad.

I skimmed through the test and saw only a few mistakes. A dropped a negative sign here or there. In one case, I neatly copied down the problem and apparently forgot to solve it.

(This could have something to do with the early hour of my class. ... Did I mention it starts at 7:20 a.m.? That's a blog for a different day.)

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  October 21, 2008; 1:45 PM ET  | Category:  Class Time
Previous: Math--Where the Girls Are? | Next: Where's the Algebra? (cont.) And a Quiz


Nice job on the test, Michael

This question/remark is somewhat off-topic but it might be of general interest. I am thinking you will probably perform reasonably well in this course – perhaps better than you did when you went through high school the first time:) This could be for a lot of reasons: you are older and more mature than a typical high school student --it may be that some of your classroom peers feel overwhelmed with other classes, work, college applications, etc…

My question is, assuming you perform well in this class, how much of that is due to basic maturity and skills in approaching a learning task? In working with my children I am trying to get them to focus on their approach to problem solving, rather than the algorithms for producing the answers. I try to get them to focus on things like: do you have a pencil, eraser, clean paper – have you eliminated other distractions – have you left enough time to do a thorough job on your homework etc… When their environment is conducive then I try to get them to ask focusing questions: what, exactly, is the question asking you – what information does the problem provide

In short I’m wondering how much of the difficulty people have with math can be reduced by having an environment and attitude that are conducive to focused concentration. The environment part is relatively easy, the attitude part perhaps less so but also changeable to some extent.

Posted by: fedbert | October 21, 2008 3:07 PM | Report abuse

a good write-up Michael....

I have always been told that girls just werent supposed to be smart in math and science. When my daughter started school, my wife and I worked hard to dispell that in her. Last year she started high school, making all A's with two B+'s....yet both B grades scored over 91%,dropping her 4.0 average down to 3.8.
Still pretty darned good, absolutely. However, in either Arlington or Montogomery county, her GPA would have been well over 4.4. Which GPA do you think would be more attractive to the college of her choice? The bottom line here is that Fairfax students are getting short-shifted...and both your experience and my daughters demonstrate the negative impact on our kids.

With the intense competition for top tier colleges that kids all over the Country face; isn't it time that Fairfax County Schools made fairness in grades a priority for our kids?

a concerned and active parent

Posted by: jsampson1 | October 21, 2008 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Hi fedbert, Thanks for the good cheer. I'm very interested in returning students and what different skills they bring to the classroom, in addition to perspective. It's hard to limit distractions at any age, but I think it's easier fpr me to understand now how much effort and focus is required to get something done.

Posted by: Michael Alison Chandler | October 21, 2008 4:44 PM | Report abuse


I believe the problems with doing good mathematics are fractal. The demands continue to increase. I am a mathematics graduate student and I still actively work on improving my level of concentration.

A few tips for your kids: it's important in the mathematics typically seen before college to be able to attack a problem geometrically and algebraically and to be able to switch between the approaches depending on what seems like it will work best. The algebra game is one of having an end state in mind and a current situation and seeing the shrewd moves (symbol manipulations) needed to get from one place to the other, not unlike playing checkers. Geometrically, we should be able to get down a picture and get some intuition for what needs to be done and how and why the particular idea we are trying to get at is true.

At some point it also becomes very important for kids to get some exposure to using mathematics in a science like physics as this provides yet another way of seeing what the answer should look like. It's difficult to understand calculus without some feeling for the physics.


Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I hope you're enjoying the mathematics :)

Posted by: mathlete | October 21, 2008 8:55 PM | Report abuse

I agree with mathlete's comment that "it's important in the mathematics typically seen before college to be able to attack a problem geometrically and algebraically and to be able to switch between the approaches depending on what seems like it will work best."

There is a useful tool toward that end called GeoGebra. It is free software, and you can find out more about it at

Posted by: BradJolly | October 22, 2008 9:34 PM | Report abuse

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