Are you smarter than a Minnesota math student?

Whenever we discuss education in Minnesota, there’s a tendency to lament that our kids are stupid, our teachers poor, our schools failures. And, it’s true, some kids are stupid, some teachers are poor, and some schools specialize in failure.

But it also ignores that many are none of those things. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why are some kids so smart and some kids aren’t? Is it their teachers? Their parents? Their schools? Or is it just the way it is? Nature vs. nurture?

MPR’s Tom Weber will have a story on Morning Edition tomorrow on an event in South St. Paul on Monday — the Minnesota State High School Mathematic League Tournament.

It’s not done, yet, but you can find it up top here later this evening.

About 300 kids — from the state’s public and charter schools — attended.

Is it time to rethink — even if just a little — some of the sweeping generalizations we make when the subject is education? Take this quiz and then you tell me.

Here are some of the answers — as well as more questions — for hours of News Cut fun.

  • EP

    Okay, I got 3 and skipped a bunch. I used to be good at math when I was still learning and doing it, now I’ve just forgotten everything!

  • Chris

    7 of 9.

    I haven’t done these sorts of questions in years, but I was surprised at how many of the tricks I remember from school. I

    The trig question totally threw me. SOHCAHTOA came out of nowhere in my brain, so I do remember some vague details. I guessed (wrongly).

    The other question I got wrong was 7, with the probability of the hand of cards. The question didn’t include how many cards are in a “hand” — I didn’t feel like figuring out the different probabilities for increasing numbers of cards in a hand until I found a number that matched one of the answers. (I guess in retrospect I should have gone with a hand of 7 cards, but I want to leave to get dinner.)

    Fun, though–thanks Bob!

    (Incidentally–on the WAYNE question, I was puzzled by the first three alphabetical examples given in the text of the question. What was up with that?)

  • minn whaler

    I’m sure we have all heard, use it or lose it..

    I aced math all the way through trig, but haven’t had any need for it beyond everyday math. If this math is being introduced and taught as necessary for life in the future, or even to get through high school, no problem. If this is stuff (and I highly suspect it isn’t) isn’t being taught the same way in each and every school district across the country, the test results are meaningless.

    Hello world, especially educators, could you just make it relevant? As in why should I get this or do all of us really have to in order to be deemed educatable? (not sure there even is such a word, but still, does everyone have to know the basics of everything to survive and/or be employable?).

  • Joey

    It looks like there are supposed to be five cards in a hand for problem 7, based on the result.

    Was that really the “easy” one? I don’t know how to do it without combinatorics, which isn’t difficult, but isn’t usually taught in high school, either. [why not?] Does anybody know a way to compute this other than

    p = (4 choose 1)*([52-4] choose 4)/(52 choose 5)?

    What did the author have in mind when he said “here begins some easier questions”?

  • brian

    minn whaler,

    These are mathlete questions, so they involve things that not everyone would have to know to get through their lives. If you have a math based carreer though, you would use many of these concepts every day.


    I thought of it this way: 4/52*48/51*47/50*46/49*45/48*5

    (prob. of an ace)*(prob. of the rest of the cards, not aces)*(five places to put the ace)

    I don’t think I would have gotten the 5 without combinatorial thinking though.

    It also threw me that 5 cards wasn’t given anywhere.

  • Elizabeth T.

    last night sitting in a class, my prof asked what the area of a cylinder is, as it was relevant to our discussion. I remembered it – it was relevant.

    “relevant” depends a great deal upon what one does professionally or for a hobby.

  • brian

    7/9. (I’m sure I took way more time than they get to do these problems)

    I like the last question in the link you gave.

    x = Sqrt(3+Sqrt(3+Sqrt(3+…

    What is x (assuming the sequence converges)?

    You get the golden ratio if you replace the 3 above with a 1.

  • JohnnyZoom

    9, but I’m a ringer 😉

    The one about the Ace stumped me. I realized that we only needed an approximation to eliminate the wrong answers, but I kept thinking bridge hands, not poker; apparently I wasn’t the only one confused here.

    brian’s question is easy if you just square both sides.

  • Bob Collins

    I am awestruck by all of you. I automatically curl into the fetal position on these things.

  • Phil L.

    5 of 9, and believe it or not I was captain of the So. St. Paul Math Team 5 years ago. I didn’t use the handy dandy graphing calculator that those kids have, and I sorta forgot my computer has a calculator.

  • John

    Hey, not fair!! I graduated from Hish School in 1963!!! We didn’t even learn most of our math with the same vocabulary.

  • carol

    examples in Q6 are not correct; I guess they only card games you play use “hands” of exactly 5 cards:

  • CT

    I think the sock one is completely wrong. The minimum number of socks to draw to get a pair is two. So the smallest draw to get 10 pair is 20, not 23. The best explanation is that if you only pick red socks you will need only twenty picks to get 10 pair. 23 picks assumes that you make an error in choosing and the question asks for the smallest number of picks not the probability of choosing 20 pair in the number of listed picks, which is 23.

    A version of this is a sock drawer has an infinite number of infinitely colored socks. It has an extra red sock. (infinity+1) What is the smallest number of socks to be selected to have two matching socks? The answer is 2. By the answer given you would have to choose infinity-1.

    The other one that baffles is the ‘hand’ one. With no definition of ‘hand’ I choose my hand to be 52 cards, after all I am playing 52 card pick up. My probability then was 1.

  • brian


    The question asks what the smallest number of sock you would need to GUARANTEE ten pairs. If you pick out 20 socks you could get, say, 18 blue socks, plus one green and one red. Then you’d have 20 socks but only 9 pairs.

  • Tom

    9/9. As a math student at the U of M, I would have been embarrassed with anything less.

  • Matt

    9/9. I started participating in Wayne Roberts’ math league in 8th grade, also took the AHSME and qualified for the AIME that year, as well as qualifying as an individual (and as part of our team) for the state tournament. As an adult, I coached a 9th grade math league team for a couple years. After looking in the answers pdf file for the approach used there for the “one ace” problem, I discovered it wasn’t in there, but that’s not surprising. Most problems for that league were designed so that a calculator was not an advantage (in fact it would often be a hindrance, because you might believe you could use some sort of brute force approach to a problem only to discover that your inelegant solution was going to use a lot of precious time). The “one ace” problem, though, stuck out like a sore thumb, because it suggested using a calculator to avoid tedious multiplication/division. Kind of a fun little “quiz”, but I’d suggest reformulating the “one ace” question to make a calculator unnecessary, or replacing it with a better problem.

  • Robert

    7/8 Some interesting questions. A couple need some editing as was cited in some of the comments.

    It was really fun reading the comments. One or two exposed some real problems in reasoning and or careful reading. The key word in the sox problem was “guarantee”.

    I think I cheated in the arithmetic sequence. I just picked a random value for x and everything worked out. Just in case, I picked a second value and got the same a/b.


    Several of your answers esp 6,7,8 don’t agree with mine. I wold not bet on your answers.

  • Mark Osthus

    My wife teaches math on the high school level and has some good students. The biggest problem students have is that for some time there have been curriculum specialists advocating that students not be taught multiplication tables on the elementary level; “drill and kill” is their slogan. However, my wife’s masters thesis gathered information from across the nation that without having the benefit of memorized math facts, especially multiplication tables, students couldn’t make progress successfully. Advisers in the graduate program told her that she and her colleagues should publish this information. Unfortunately, they were all too busy and could never coordinate to do so. But, the thesis is in the UMD library for someone to investigate and challenge the alleged “specialists” who were probably influenced by Texas Instruments, et al. Anyone who wants to check it out will find a simple solution to a major problem, i.e. kids who get stuck and hate math as a result of not learning multiplication tables at the elementary level.

    Perhaps a Duluth MPR reporter or grad student in journalism would like to check this out.

  • Bob Collins

    That’s unbelievable, Mark. I wish the paper were in electronic form.

    As I recall, we learned our multiplication tables in the second grade (1961-1962). The idea that our relatively poor standing in math (and possibly science) is the result of our curriculum in the 2nd grade is mind boggling.

  • Peter

    2/7 Far more exotic than I was ever exposed to.

    I taught for a few years and sub taught for several more and found that allowing students to use calculators diminished their ability to solve problems. Number crunchers are cheap–problem solvers cost big bucks. I always told my students to be problem solvers. Some influential person in the education field must have hated memorization because since it has fallen out of vogue we have been producing people who cannot do simple math in their heads, find their home state on a map or remember the date for cinco de Mayo.

  • Barb S

    Hi Bob,

    Interesting story. I think what would make an even more interesting story would be to have a quiz that included questions from the 11th Grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II on math that students must pass to get a diploma (GRAD).

    This story focused on the elite mathematicians in our schools, but this test is for everyone.

    This coming spring students will take a test in math that will determine whether they get a MN high school diploma. Previously only about 30% of 11th Graders passed the whole test. The GRAD portion will be some part of that. Of course we don’t know what part or what exactly the content will be. Right now MDE is scrambling to figure out how many students can we afford to have not graduate before we get parental revolt. Do we risk lowering standards?

    I work every day trying to improve student’s math performance. Did you know that our best estimate is that 11th Graders in MN have to be better than 66% of their peers across the nation to pass our 11th Grade GRAD math test. That’s very high standards. Can we really expect that of everyone?

  • Bob Collins

    Funny you should mention that, Barb. I actually have the sample questions and answers right here next to me, where they’ve been sitting for the last two weeks. My goal is to do exactly that. Maybe next week.

  • Tom

    It has been a long time since I did problems like these. ( I did manage a MS in Math in 1975 but the last few years of classes were no help). I had to get our my old ‘Integrated Algebra and Trig’ book to look up the Cos (X+Y) – but at least I remembered (after a few minutes) that there was such a thing.

    I get pretty tired of the word puzzles on Sunday morning – I almost never get those right.


  • Ron Nelson

    This is exactly why my daughter had to take a general math class in collage to learn how to do basic math.

    My son who is a math wiz and works in a fairly technical position said he’s never used it since highschool

    Are there kids, (especially boys) who feel stupid when facing this type of math that they withdraw and flunk out? What is the percentage of students who need higher math compared to students who will just need to be good at adding, subtracting, multiplying

  • Patty

    Sadly, the teachers don’t get to decide what students need to “know”. It’s the legislators. We’re sending students out into the real world with the (supposed) knowledge of how to solve quadratic equations, but could they balance their checkbook or make sense of a mortgage plan? I certainly wouldn’t trust many of my 9th grade students to give me my correct change if the cash register broke down, and not because they were trying to dupe me, but because they can’t do simple arithmetic! It’s pathetic. Their knowledge of basic math facts is dismal. I hate seeing my students count on their fingers when adding numbers, and they still get it wrong!

    Education has gone downhill since we’ve moved away from expecting our students to memorize. It’s extremely difficult to get them to think on higher levels when you have to remind them over and over and over of the basics. There is a reason the levels of thinking are modeled by a pyramid – memorization of basic facts is the base. It supports everything else. Worse, it’s made the majority of students lazy.

  • Irene K

    Got 9/9. This was loads of fun, stuff I learnt 40+ years ago in high school in Singapore, and haven’t thought about since. Had to really think, and certainly did not win any speed awards. (I did have to look up definition of “vertex” of parabola, which I initially confused with the focus).

    Editors: There is a confusing misprint in the examples in question 6. Two of the sample words are not only the same, but of 4-character length. The 1st 3 words in the example should have read: AENWY, AENYW, AEWNY)

  • William Z


    I am going to the National Mathcounts 2010 in Orlando, and I’m going to Wayzata High next year. This isn’t too bad… Mathcounts have these really horrible problems…