Early Starters in Math Reach Higher Levels

By Sean Cavanagh — March 06, 2007 4 min read
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Students who take calculus, trigonometry, or advanced statistics late in high school are delving into the sort of mathematics that many of their teenage peers aren’t likely to encounter until college, if at all.

Yet the path to those and other demanding math courses begins as early as middle school, a recent federal study suggests.

Students who took geometry as 9th graders—and were therefore likely to have taken Algebra 1 in 8th grade or earlier—were 2½ times more likely to enroll in an advanced math class later in high school, the study found, than those who waited a year to take that introductory algebra class.

That finding does not surprise educators and math-curriculum experts. They say students who are academically prepared to take algebra by 8th grade—or are required by their schools to do so—would be inclined to move on to more-demanding math as part of a natural progression.

But several of those observers also caution that the findings do not necessarily justify having more students take Algebra 1 at a younger age. What is most important, they say, is that students be well prepared for their first algebra class as a foundation for more-challenging math.

Path to Achievement

The higher the math course students complete in 9th grade, the more advanced courses they tend to complete throughout their high school careers.

*Click image to see the full chart.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics

“The natural thing is for everyone to say, ‘Everybody should take Algebra 1 in 8th grade,’ ” said James M. Rubillo, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va. “Well, not everybody is ready. We advocate strong preparation for algebra.”

Vern Williams, a math teacher at Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., has been critical of approaches to teaching math that he deems unchallenging—including NCTM-supported curricula. But he agrees that little is to be gained by teaching algebra sooner if students have not been served a diet of more-basic math.

Mr. Williams serves on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a 17-member group commissioned by the White House to identify proven strategies for improving math instruction—including those that prepare students for algebra and higher-level math.

“It should be taught when a kid is ready for it,” Mr. Williams said of algebra, “both abstractly, and when they have the arithmetic background that will allow them to [succeed in] the course.”

The study, “America’s High School Graduates: Results From the 2005 NAEP High School Transcript Study,” collected data from about 640 public and 80 private schools that took part in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (“Students Taking More Demanding Courses,” Feb. 28, 2007.)

Meeting Requirements

The study found that the average number of core high school math courses among participating students has steadily risen from 1990 to 2005. Students who take more-demanding math classes, such as Algebra 2, and especially “advanced math”—defined as a course beyond Algebra 2—also scored better on NAEP than those who took more-basic classes.

But students’ likelihood of taking an advanced math course also depended in large measure on what course they took freshman year, the study found. Thirty-seven percent of students who took Algebra 1 as freshmen ended up taking advanced math before graduating from high school; that number rose to 87 percent among those who took geometry in 9th grade.

The study doesn’t specify whether the latter group of students took Algebra 1 prior to 9th grade, but the Institute of Education Sciences, which oversaw the study, indicated it was likely.

Despite the apparent benefits of taking Algebra 1 earlier, pushing students into that class too soon carries risks, several observers said. A “significant number” of students fail Algebra 1, compared with other high school courses, said David T. Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon. He came to that conclusion as a secondary finding while studying high school course content.

Others noted that even if students wait until freshman year to take Algebra 1, then take geometry as sophomores and Algebra 2 as juniors, that leaves them with another year to take advanced math. But those participating in the study evidently chose not to do so. Many students, they said, probably dropped math as 12th graders because neither their state nor their district required it.

“That’s why the levers states have at their fingertips are so important,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that advocates higher academic standards. Otherwise, he said, “you’ve given an open invitation not to take math.”

Only Alabama and South Carolina currently mandate four years of high school math, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy organization. Nine states are phasing in a required fourth year, the ECS said.

Students who skip senior-year math pay a price, regardless of whether it is an “advanced” course, Mr. Rubillo said. Colleges often are forced to determine not only the highest-level math incoming students have taken, but also if they have skipped math during senior year, the NCTM official said, during which time their skills could erode. Those students often need remedial math, he said.

The difference is often whether a first-year college student needs only a tune-up “or if they’re starting over,” said Mr. Rubillo, a former community college math teacher. With students who take math as 12th graders, he said, “you can get [them] going much more quickly.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Early Starters in Math Reach Higher Levels

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