Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning Assessment > What is QLR?

What is QLR?

Quantitative Literacy/Reasoning (QLR) is a relatively new and growing field, with many institutions replacing traditional math requirements with various introductory Q-requirements. Math for the Liberal Arts and Finite Math enrollments have risen 53% from 1995 to 2005 while mainstream Calculus I enrollments are up only 3% over the same period (CBMS, 2005).

In 2009, the Mathematical Association of America's Special Interest Group in QL (SIGMAA-QL) conducted a survey of 1,554 institutions and found that while 87% of respondents had some form of quantitative requirement (Schield, 2010) only about 23% of them have pre-post assessment of QLR skills. Most of these internal assessment tools have no national norms to compare to and the actual construct of "quantitatively literate" remains undeveloped (Bookman, 2008). Colby-Sawyer, Bowdoin, and Wellesley College are leading institutions who have done extensive work on assessing students' QLR skills.

About this project

The NSF-supported QLRA (Quantitative Literacy Reasoning Assessment) project synthesizes, and builds on the experiences at Colby-Sawyer, Bowdoin, and Wellesley Colleges. The QLRA Project brings together leaders and experts in the QLR field with extensive backgrounds working with SIGMAA-QL, the National Numeracy Network (NNN), and assessment to create an online resource for assessing QLR. This online portal will allow institutions to easily adapt the non-proprietary instrument to their own needs. The development and implementation of appropriate QLR assessments will provide needed guidance for assessing student readiness for STEM fields and more generally for the workforce of the 21st century.

Changes in enrollment in math courses

The current developmental/introductory math program in this country is undergoing a profound paradigm shift, as focus moves from traditional algebra based curricula to the development the quantitative skills and habits of mind required for decision making in our personal, civic and workplace lives (CRAFTY, 2009). The Quant-way initiative, which seeks to develop a 1-year QLR course sequence for community college students, demonstrates the scope of change in curriculum for our nation's students (Quant-way, 2011). Community colleges in particular serve underrepresented groups in mathematics and the majority of these students (81% in 2005) are enrolled in introductory math courses (CBMS 2005). It is critical that institutions from across the country all have access to QLR resources as they seek to assess their students and evaluate their nascent QLR programs. The QLRA Project will provide the needed assessment infrastructure and collaborative platform as the development of QLR proceeds.

Historical overview of the development of QLR in the United States

Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning (QLR) is a relatively recent phenomenon on the academic landscape (Madison and Steen 2008). It is important at the outset of this proposal to articulate what is meant by these terms and synonymously Numeracy, as their meaning has evolved and is often misinterpreted. A 1959 report in the United Kingdom (Ministry of Education 1959) first mentions numeracy: referring to an ability to communicate with numbers requiring sophisticated reasoning skills just as in traditional reading and writing literacies. Unfortunately the word "literacy" has remedial connotations for many and leads people to think of QL as basic arithmetic skills, hence the alternative QR emphasizing the reasoning aspect. In the United States QL first appears in the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum and Evaluation Standards (NCTM 1989) as part of a probability and data strand, based upon work by the American Statistical Association. The Mathematical Association of America responded to this with the formation of a QL subcommittee which issued a report in 1994 (Sons 1996) calling for QL programs and requirements at colleges and universities which are integrated throughout the curriculum with associated assessments. In 1997 the publication of Why Numbers Count: Quantitative Literacy for Tomorrow's America (Steen 1997) put QL on the map by bringing the notion of QL to a wider audience as a means of empowering the public to more fully participate as active citizens, in much the same way that reading and writing played this role 100 years earlier.

In 2001 the National Council on Education and the Disciplines (NCED) published Mathematics and Democracy: The Case for Quantitative Literacy (Steen 2001). This compendium by leading advocates of QL attempted to summarize the growing body of literature in this field, and articulate exactly what QL is, why it is important, and how it differs from traditional mathematics instruction. The Mathematical Association of America's Special Interest Group in Quantitative Literacy (SIGMAA-QL) and the National Numeracy Network (NNN) were both founded in 2004 in response to the growing number of institutions developing QLR programs and requirements (Gillman 2006). SIGMAA-QL celebrated the 10 year anniversary of Mathematics and Democracy (Steen 2001) at the 2011 Joint Mathematics Meetings. It seems fitting to include a quotation from the distinguished group of educators who contributed to this text: "Quantitatively literate citizens need to know more than formulas and equations. They need a predisposition to look at the world through mathematical eyes, to see the benefits (and risks) of thinking quantitatively about commonplace issues, and to approach complex problems with confidence in the value of careful reasoning. Quantitative literacy empowers people by giving them tools to think for themselves, to ask intelligent questions of experts, and to confront authority confidently. These are skills required to thrive in the modern world." (Steen 2001) This then is what we will mean by QLR: the skill set necessary to process quantitative information and the capacity to critique, reflect upon, and apply quantitative information in making decisions.

Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning thus take on an over-arching status across the curriculum similar to critical thinking and effective communication skills. These are outcomes that cannot be housed neatly in one particular discipline and certainly not something that can be mastered in a single course. Indeed the call for QLR to "permeate the curriculum" and "become a centerpiece for interdisciplinary learning, linking a wide range of subjects to a common methodological framework rooted in mathematics" continues today in texts like Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges (Bok 2008). Most recently the American Association for Colleges and Universities (AACU) lists QL as one of their essential learning outcomes to be "practiced extensively across the curriculum in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance." (AACU 2011) In particular they list the top three learning outcomes as chosen by AACU member institutions as being one of the learning goals they have for all students:

Thus it is even more imperative that there exist assessment instruments available to institutions as QLR has no official academic home and still remains misunderstood by the public and many in the academy (Madison 2008). The QLRA project aims to provide such a professionally developed QLR assessment instrument and online resource for institutions grappling with providing QLR opportunities to their students and measuring outcomes.


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