# Our Math Deficit Doesn’t Add Up

Here’s a story you’ve probably heard before: General Plastics Manufacturing of Tacoma, Washington, needs factory workers to make foam products. So they give all their applicants a math test that asks them to convert inches to feet, calculate the density of a block of foam, and a few other things:

Basic middle school math, right?

But what troubles General Plastics executive Eric Hahn is that although the company considers only prospective workers who have a high school education, only one in 10 who take the test pass. And that’s not just bad luck at a single factory or in a single industry.

Hahn, vice president of organizational development, said that the poor scores on his company’s math test have been evident for the past six years. He also sits on an aerospace workforce training committee and said that most other Washington state suppliers in his industry have been seeing the same problem.

OK, now look at the chart on the right. It shows results from the NAEP math test—a national assessment that’s generally considered highly reliable—for 17-year-olds. And basically, it shows nothing. If you take a look at the 25th and 50th percentiles, which is where most factory workers come from, scores have been pretty flat for the past two decades. If anything, they’re up slightly.

So how do we square this with Eric Hahn’s contention that General Plastics has had trouble over the past few years finding qualified workers? I can think of a few possibilities:

1. Hahn is just wrong. He remembers the past as rosier than it was.
2. Jobs at General Plastics require higher skills than in the past, but they’re refusing to pay any more than they used to. So they’re not getting suitable applicants.
3. Ever since the NCLB “test ’em til they drop” era started, kids have been learning rote math that’s good for getting high test scores but not so good for solving actual real-world problems.
4. Scores have fallen off a cliff over the past five years, but we don’t see it in the chart because it only goes up to 2008.
5. Washington is doing worse than other states.

There’s evidence that #3 isn’t the answer. To the extent that kids are taught to the test, they’re taught to state tests, since those are the ones used to measure performance. The NAEP is a federal test that nobody teaches to because (a) it doesn’t count for anything, and (b) it’s given to only a tiny fraction of students nationwide (less than 1 percent of all K-12 students). What’s more, the long-term NAEP, which is what I showed above, has been carefully constructed to stay the same from year to year. It’s testing exactly the same thing today that it tested in 1978.

There’s also evidence that #4 isn’t the answer. We don’t have national results for 17-year olds that are more recent than 2008, but we do have results for 8th graders on the main NAEP. Their math scores rose between 2007 and 2011. A sudden and unprecedented collapse between 8th and 12th grades seems unlikely.

There’s also evidence that #5 isn’t the answer. In fact, Washington has done a bit better than the national average over the past decade.

I might have missed a possibility. For now, though, my money is on #2.

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### WE CAME UP SHORT.

We just wrapped up a shorter-than-normal, urgent-as-ever fundraising drive and we came up about \$45,000 short of our \$300,000 goal.

That means we're going to have upwards of \$350,000, maybe more, to raise in online donations between now and June 30, when our fiscal year ends and we have to get to break-even. And even though there's zero cushion to miss the mark, we won't be all that in your face about our fundraising again until June.

So we urgently need this specific ask, what you're reading right now, to start bringing in more donations than it ever has. The reality, for these next few months and next few years, is that we have to start finding ways to grow our online supporter base in a big way—and we're optimistic we can keep making real headway by being real with you about this.

Because the bottom line: Corporations and powerful people with deep pockets will never sustain the type of journalism Mother Jones exists to do. The only investors who won’t let independent, investigative journalism down are the people who actually care about its future—you.

And we hope you might consider pitching in before moving on to whatever it is you're about to do next. We really need to see if we'll be able to raise more with this real estate on a daily basis than we have been, so we're hoping to see a promising start.