Mathematics

Do Students Need Four Years of High School Math?

By Sarah Schwartz — January 17, 2023 4 min read
Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Harris Academy, in Battersea, London, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023.
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Britain’s prime minister thinks students need to learn more math.

The British prime minister’s announcement has sparked heated debate abroad about the value of continuing math education into the upper grades. But it also provides an opportunity to take a closer look at the differences between the U.K. and American systems. How much math do U.S. high schoolers take? What are they learning? And does more instruction actually lead to better outcomes?

Unlike in the United States, many students in England stop taking math after age 16. This month, the country’s new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, announced that he wants all students to study the subject through secondary school.

His speech didn’t signal any formal policy change, but if one is proposed, it would be a big shift for England’s education policy. Sunak said that students need the skills to manage their personal finances as adults—and that they need to be prepared for a workforce “where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job,” a theme that’s emerged in American math discussions, too.

Comparing two countries’ math systems

First, let’s consider the differences between the two systems.

In the U.S., most students take math for the majority of their high school careers. Twenty-seven states require three math courses before graduation; 17 states and the District of Columbia require four.

There’s a traditional course sequence in U.S. high school math. Students progress from Algebra 1 in 9th grade, to geometry in 10th grade, then Algebra 2 in 11th grade. But not everyone follows this plan, said Lindsay Perlmutter Fitzpatrick, the policy and implementation lead at the University of Texas at Austin’s Charles A. Dana Center.

A 2022 analysis of math coursetaking in nine states from the Dana Center, Student Achievement Partners, and the Education Strategy Group found that there’s a lot of variation state by state. Among these states, though, a median of 27 percent of students went through the traditional course sequence. Thirteen percent went through an accelerated track, taking Algebra I in 8th grade. But 56 percent went through some other pathway—which may or may not include all three of those traditional courses.

Not having those foundational courses could limit students’ post-secondary options and achievement, Fitzpatrick said.

“We know from working with higher education instructors and faculty that in order for students to be successful in a college mathematics course—and every program or credential requires at least one—that students need the content that is found in Algebra 1, geometry, and most of the content that’s typically found in Algebra 2,” she said.

In the U.K., the math skills that students need to graduate high school and succeed in college look different—and the high school requirements do, too.

Students take exams called the General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSEs, when they’re 15 or 16 years old. Students have to pass the math exam, or retake it if they don’t pass on the first try. But after that, they don’t have to enroll in any further math classes.

Depending on what students want to study at university, they may not need them. College admissions work differently in the U.K. Students apply to study a specific subject, in contrast to the U.S., where many don’t pick a major until the end of their second year. To prepare, British students take a specialized set of secondary courses and related exams called “A-Levels.”

In the U.K., if a student is applying to study English literature, for example, they won’t be required to have advanced math courses or a qualifying A-level in math.

Does more math make a difference?

In the U.S., there’s a strong connection between high school math and what students do after—even for those who aren’t in a particularly math-centric major or career.

“Students who take more years of math in high school have better post-secondary outcomes,” Fitzpatrick said.

For Fitzpatrick, that underscores the importance of getting students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds to take more math classes. It’s an equity issue, she said.

The 2022 analysis showed that in states that required four years of math for graduation, higher percentages of students took four years of math. This isn’t a cause-and-effect relationship, but it does suggest that “the default requirement matters,” Fitzpatrick said.

But outside of college preparedness, does more math make a difference? In his speech this month, Sunak said that he wants students to grow into adults who “feel confident” in their numeracy abilities. Can more years of math instruction make that happen?

It’s hard to know for sure. Many countries—including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Finland, and Japan—require students to take math through age 18. But there’s a lot of variability in how these countries perform on the national stage.

The United States scores below the international average for math on the Program for International Student Assessment, or the PISA, a global test of students’ abilities across several subjects, including math. Other countries do much better, including China and Vietnam.

Still, watchers of these tests say it’s difficult to separate out the different factors that lead to these disparities in results. Some of it may be related to countries’ approaches to math instruction, but other variables—such as countries’ economies, wealth disparities, and other education policies—likely also play a role.

Some British experts have said schools need to intervene earlier to shore up the gaps in student skills, highlighting the importance of early numeracy education—a priority that many American educators have said needs more focus, too.

Research has shown that early math supports, both at home and at school, can help students succeed in later elementary grades.

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