Many Students Unprepared for High School Math

Attempts to push students into attempting Algebra I material earlier in their academic careers might be causing some to give up on the subject entirely.

The number of students taking remedial math courses at the T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, has grown. This year, there are more kids assigned to classes designed to get them back up to grade-level in the subject than are enrolled in all the other remedial courses offered by the school. Patrick Welsh,writing for USAToday, says that the reason for this is that the new curriculum standards are too difficult, with students attempting to tackle concepts without appropriate foundation in the subject.

I worry that we’re pushing many kids to grasp math at higher levels before they are ready. When they struggle, they begin to dread math, and eventually we lose thousands of students who could be the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. If we held back and took more time to ground them in the basics, we could turn them on to math.

Gary Thomas, who has taught mathematics at T.C. Williams since his retirement from the Army Corps of Engineers, says that a lot of students in his Algebra II course were completely unprepared to tackle high-school level work. Their grades in Algebra I were no better than a D and they ended up failing the subject’s end-of-year exam, and yet they were still promoted to the next level course. It’s no wonder, says Thomas, that students feel like giving up on math entirely.

English and social studies teachers face the same problem when school officials, more interested in boasting about the numbers of kids in higher-level courses than in what they really learn, place students without the requisite skills in advanced placement classes.

These kinds of automatic promotions without regard for student readiness are common across many American school districts, with one particular manifestation being pushing kids into algebra courses in earlier and earlier grades. One third of 8th graders were taking algebra 2007, a course traditionally offered in the 9th grade. That is nearly double the rate of 17 years earlier.

California has been particularly aggressive in this regard, as more than half of the state’s 8th graders are enrolled in Algebra I. The increase, part of a California State Board of Education initiative, was meant to give the option to students who felt ready for advanced math early. Still, some question whether 54% of California students have the correct background in the subject to make them successful in the class.

My colleague Sally Miller has taught almost every high school math offering. She lives and breathes her subject, but she is the first to warn that too much math too soon is counterproductive. When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator. “In the lower grades, more time has to be devoted to practicing basic computational skills so that they are internalized and eventually come naturally.”

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