Literally. (Sort of.)

I’ve given my Algebra 2 students (mostly sophomores) several quizzes over the last few weeks, testing their ability to add and subtract integers. Many of them repeatedly got the wrong answer for this problem:

1 – (-1) = [a box for the answer]

I became incensed one night in October when I recognized the horrible state of their arithmetic fundamentals. Although in California this is a 7th grade standard — which puts them *only *three years behind — the basics of this should have been building in them since about 3rd grade. Subtraction is the inverse of addition, the left half of the number line contains the negative numbers, etc.

What did I do with my anger? I announced in class that no one would pass the semester without being able to demonstrate competency in integer arithmetic. I said I would talk to an assistant principal and decided whether to give an F or an I for the final grade of those who couldn’t subtract. The response was predictable:

- “You can’t do that.”
- “We couldn’t have gotten this far in math without being able to subtract.”
- “How are you going to decide whether or not we can subtract?”
- “Will we give an F or an I?”

The second response was especially funny because it came from a girl who got a 7 out of 20 on her most recent integer subtraction quiz. (In fact, she escalated the discussion to the point of rudeness. I ended up showing her the quiz — while her classmates watched — in order to end the discussion.)

I’ve developed a set of 20-question quizzes and a very handy answer key that makes it possible for my TA to grade 40 quizzes in about 10 minutes. I administer the quizzes every few days, during class, to the students who haven’t reach 15 points.

Note: it’s now several weeks since my announcement. I’ve spoken to two APs. Both said, “You can’t do that.” I haven’t told the students I can’t do that, so as far as they know I can and will.