SOME OF the state's leading professors are questioning Maryland's algebra standards, saying in a petition that they promote "pretend algebra" that is "actually fifth- or sixth-grade arithmetic."

Forty professors at the University of Maryland, College Park and the Johns Hopkins University have signed the document, which calls on state educators to beef up algebra and align it "with the most rigorous international state content standards available."

Among signers are the chairman of Hopkins' math department and several distinguished academics at College Park. The petition is making its way electronically to other campuses.

The professors' criticism is based on the high school graduation tests that Maryland students are taking on a practice basis until 2003. Students entering high school that fall will have to pass algebra and other tests to graduate. And there's the rub.

The new algebra test will have to be passed by all students. It's based on "core learning goals" that were agreed on after years of discussion among the state's math teachers, supervisors and professors. The exams are tougher than their predecessors, the Maryland functional tests, but they have to be politically palatable; a huge failure rate won't fly.

So, as one state official puts it, "We're not talking quadratic equations here."

Gary Heath, branch chief of arts and sciences at the State Department of Education, won't say the test measures a minimum curriculum. "I'd rather say it's designed as a target for all children," he says.

To give you an idea of what we might be seeing down the line, here's a representative algebra question made public from field testing in 2000:

"The income (y) for a particular toothpaste company is modeled by the equation y = 2.5 x dollars, where y is the income for selling x tubes of toothpaste. The cost of producing toothpaste is y = 0.9 x + 3000 dollars, where y is the cost of producing x tubes."

Students are then asked to calculate how many tubes of toothpaste must be sold for the income to equal the production cost, to calculate the income and production cost at the point where they are equal, and to determine the least number of tubes the company can sell to make a profit. They're required to "use mathematics to justify" answers.

I bounced this off John Hoven, co-president of the Gifted and Talented Association of Montgomery County and one of those circulating the petition. "It's what they do over and over again," said Hoven. "They introduce a sophisticated topic at a superficial level and don't require that it be mastered."

But -- and it's a big but -- if you do a little math on the results on that test item, only 44 of 1,733 Maryland students who answered that question answered all three parts correctly.

It's going to be interesting!

If you think MSPAP is stirring up a storm, wait until we start holding back the sons and daughters of Maryland because they can't pass a simple algebra test.

UMBC's Hrabowski wins McGraw education prize

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a 2001 recipient of the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education. Hrabowski was honored as an "educator, administrator, researcher and civil rights advocate" who "has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to educational excellence and minority achievement, particularly in math and science."

Hrabowski donated the $25,000 McGraw award to UMBC and his alma mater, Hampton University in Virginia.

Readers offer suggestions on new name for college

Nominations continue to pour in for a new name for Western Maryland College, the school in suburban Westminster that is neither public (as its name implies) nor in Western Maryland. If Education Beat readers suggest the name to be proposed by the Illinois marketers hired (at $200,000) to do the job, we'll bill the firm for services rendered.

Thomas Scott of Catonsville proposed Old Line College, based on the school's age (founded just after the Civil War) and proximity to the Mason-Dixon Line.

One caller suggested Westminister College, which is how some Baltimoreans pronounce the college's hometown. (It's close to the Patapsaco River.)

Thomas N. Yingling of Westminster said Almost Near Western Maryland College solves the geographical problem, while College at Ravens Camp "brings in the big bucks."