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Do Your Students Measure up Metrically?

Using a Journal Article as a Professional Development Experience


Title:           Do Your Students Measure up Metrically?
Authors:      P. Mark Taylor, Ken Simms, Ok-Kyeong Kim, and Robert E. Reys
Journal:      Teaching Children Mathematics
Issue:          January 2001, Volume 7, Issue 5, pp. 282-287

Rationale/Suggestion for Use 

The NCTM Position Statement (October, 2006) titled, “Teaching the Metric System for America’s Future”, states its support for the efforts of the “U.S. government to make a transition to the metric system (SI) as the nation’s primary measurement system”. This article addresses issues in U.S. schools related to learning the metric system as indicated by the performance of 3rd and 4th graders on released  items on the TIMMS test. It also offers suggestions for improving student’s achievement in the future.


  1. Provide a copy of the article to all participants. Refer specifically to the released metric items printed on page 263 of the article.
    • Ask participants, working individually, to find solutions to the six items.
    • Next, discuss in their table groups why they think there is such a discrepancy between the international average and United States average of correct responses. (Focus discussion on items J6, K5, M7 and V5 as the other two are based on measurement concepts that are independent of the system of measurement.)
    • Facilitate a whole group discussion focusing on why they think questions involving the metric system pose such a serious challenge to U.S. students.
    • Encourage participants to try these same assessment items with their students. If a follow-up session is scheduled they should be given an opportunity to share how their students performed on the items and what they noticed about their student’s learning.            
  2. Based on data collected from one school district (1999), the authors’ state, “it seems safe to say that the metric system is not an integral part of U.S. students’ daily experience and, therefore, is not viewed as essential in comparison with the U.S. customary system”.  

    Invite participants to discuss the following:
    • The present situation in their own school or district in regard to the teaching and learning of the metric system.
    • Should there be concern that students do not know the metric system. Why or why not?
    • The effect of the public’s resistance (real or perceived) to the use of the metric system on student achievement on the assessment items.
  3. Ask participants to read the insert about the Mars Climate Orbiter story, Figure 1, page 284.

    • Do you think this is an isolated incident? Can you think of similar incidents where a lack of knowledge of the metric system may cause an accident or in some way put people at risk?
  4. The article makes three recommendations for assessing the role that the metric system plays in curriculum and classroom instruction. Have participants read these three recommendations (page 285-286). Facilitate a discussion on the three recommendations, focusing on adjustments for using the assessments in participant’s own classroom, school or district, and soliciting from the group other things that could be done to enhance such an assessment.

    If the participants are in a situation to do so, ask them to conduct an assessment using the suggested above. If there is a second meeting of the group scheduled ask participants to share their findings.

Next Steps 

  1. Provide copies of the NCTM Position Paper “Teaching the Metric System for America’s Future”. Invite the participants to share their opinions on the Paper focusing on the second section, The Metric and Customary Systems of Measurement.   Use the following suggestions to facilitate the discussion:
    • Do you agree with the Paper’s claim that since almost every other country uses the metric system the US must also do so, especially if it wants to continue to be a leader in international business? 
    • The Position Paper states, “Instruction can relate the metric system directly to our number system. Units are based on powers of ten, providing instructional opportunities for students to use decimals in applied settings.”
      • Invite participants, working in table groups, to compile a list of examples that show the relationship between metric measurement, powers of ten, and decimals.
      • Allow time to share with the whole group.
  2. The article, “Do Your Students Measure up Metrically?” gives three activities (Figures 2 -4) that could be incorporated into the curriculum throughout the year to help students develop a better understanding of the metric system.  Ask participants to adapt these activities for use with their students. Participants should record reflections on the teaching of these activities and the students’ learning to share at another face to face session or electronically.

Connections to Other NCTM Publications 

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