Math 'phobia' is introduced into equation
By Eric J. Lyman, Special for USA TODAY
ROME -- Skipping an entire math course with a note from a doctor may strike mathphobes as the ultimate fantasy. Now an Italian
court has decreed that fantasy a reality.
In a landmark case recently argued before the Tar, a regional court that deals with social matters, Viviana, a high school junior at the
Da Vinci school in the northern Italian city of Trento, won the right to start her final year of school despite a failing grade in math.
Usually, failing a subject would mean having to repeat a grade.
Her defense? Her lawyers said she has an "irreversible psychological pathology" -- basically, math phobia -- a condition the court
determined made it impossible for her to study and master the subject.
Some Italian educators say the court's decision could set a precedent that would allow students to skip studies they find too difficult.
Most details about Viviana, including her family name, have been kept private. But the records show that she is a good student in
most areas aside from mathematics and that her studies focused on letters rather than science, where math would have been more
important. On the Italian 10-point grading scale, she scored a 7 to 9 in all of her courses except math, in which she scored a 3. A
score of at least 6 is necessary to pass any subject.
Unless, of course, courts rule that the student has a psychological pathology against the subject.
According to Italian legal experts, the court ruling was not without merit. Aldo Sandulli, a law professor at the University of Urbino who
reviewed the case, says the court's decision takes into account a variety of factors, including the opinions of expert psychologists, the
student's grades in other courses and the alternatives available. Furthermore, he says, the court's decision was only a
recommendation; it left the final decision up to the school.
"It is not as clear-cut as it might seem because this is complicated: For example, the student has done well in other areas, and
(mathematics) is not an area of emphasis for her," Sandulli says. "The court had to weigh the grave loss of a year of school against
But some educators viewed the case in a harsher light.
Anna Ferraris, a developmental psychologist with Rome's Sapienza University, says that although it is true that certain students can
have an unusually hard time with specific subject areas, letting students pass a grade without mastering a core subject was a
less-than-ideal solution, and the fact that the Tar agreed to rule on the case presented its own set of problems.
"On one hand, it worries me that the court rather than the school has made a public decision in this case," Ferraris says. "And on the
other hand, the decision supports a kind of stigma surrounding students who are held back a year. Educators should stress that just
because a student repeats a grade, it doesn't mean that the student isn't smart.
"Then there's the problem that if this sets a precedent, then students in the future may claim some kind of pathology against other
subjects, like history or science."
In the USA, educators are equally critical of the decision.
Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, says the school should have tried putting Viviana in a
substitute course such as economics, computer science or physics that might have been easier for her while still maintaining what
he called the "intellectual honesty" of the curriculum.
"Students should be taking more math classes, not fewer," Lott says. "If a student has some kind of block against math, that means
the school should try harder to reach that student; simply allowing the student to pass without a sufficient score in math is not an
alternative I can recommend.
"We all need a certain amount of math literacy to function in the world, and that must come from the schools."
Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
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