The unanswered math question: Who needs to know this stuff?

The Accuplacer practice questions printed in the Globe (“College placement exam raises concerns,” Page A1, Aug. 8) illustrate an issue rarely discussed in the debates over standards and tests: Who needs to know this stuff?

It’s fun knowing how to solve quadratic equations involving the square root of minus 1. And that knowledge is needed in a few lines of work. But why should it be required for taking entry-level college courses, the gateway to so many good jobs?

Both of us have advanced degrees and do interesting work. We do use mathematics in work and daily life, but since we left school, we have never used the algebraic skills tested by Accuplacer.

Advanced algebra is the new Latin: It has some uses, but mostly it’s a hurdle that trips up young people who could be successful in challenging occupations but don’t get the chance because they haven’t learned the quadratic formula.


Many of those who learn the quadratic formula, if they did it just to pass a test, could have used their time more productively learning life skills and important knowledge, such as how to reason, communicate, understand history and society, or play a musical instrument.

Alain and Patricia Jehlen, Somerville