Standard-izing Those Math and Science Standards

By Sean Cavanagh — January 26, 2009 2 min read

The Washington Post has a good story on what I would describe as an under-reported issue in education today: The dissimilarity of math standards and courses that, on paper, appear to be uniform.

The story focuses on Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, and their efforts to encourage more students to take Algebra 2. The story says DC is moving toward a requirement that all students complete that math class before high school graduation. While Virginia and Maryland are not taking that step, the story notes that all three jurisdictions are raising requirements for Algebra 2 in one way or another, and that Virginia requires students to take a standardized test to show they’ve learned the material. Nationwide, the number of states that are requiring Algebra 2, or an equivalent course, has jumped from just two in 2005 to 20 today, the story says, citing Achieve.

The story does a nice job of looking at conflicting pressures facing officials in all three systems, pressures that are playing out in districts around the country. On the one hand, they want to encourage many more students to take Algebra 2, to prepare them for college and the job market. But the reality is that many students show up in these courses far from ready. As a result, algebra classes can look very different, depending on the school, and how far the students have to catch up. One Maryland official cites that states’ experience, years before, in increasing mandates for Algebra 1, when many schools were forced to offer not only a traditional class, but also “Baby Algebra,” a slower-paced version, for students who couldn’t keep up. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how similar problems crop up in Algebra 2.

I touched on some similar issues in a series of stories I wrote last month on the state of Alabama’s experience in setting relatively high math and science requirements. Alabama, despite being one of the lowest-performing states on national tests, was the first state in the country to require four years of both math and science in high school. Just last year, the state moved to increase those requirements once again, phasing in a mandate that students take Algebra 2, with trigonometry, unless their parents opt them out.

Alabama’s schools, however, meet the state mandate in very different ways. In some districts, students are expected to take both math and science, literally, all four years, freshman through senior year. In other places, however, such as those using block scheduling, students can squeeze the mandated courses into three or even two years, meaning they might not take any math or science their seniors years. State officials, meanwhile have made large-scale efforts to increase the skills of their math and science teachers, though one of the largest state-run teacher training programs in the country, and students’ access to high-quality courses, through distance education and other means.

As more states move to toughen math and science policies, expect to see them grappling with the issue of how to help struggling students—and how to ensure that students in math and science courses with impressive titles are being taught material that’s equally impressive.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.