The Illusion of ‘Rigor’ in Math

By Sean Cavanagh — October 12, 2009 2 min read
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Mark Schneider, the former chief of the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical office, lays bare the discrepancy between American high schoolers’ enrollment in tougher math classes, their alleged success in those courses, and their continuing mediocre academic performance in that subject.

Policymakers have long been flummoxed by U.S. students’ failure to make gains in high school math, during the same period when math scores among younger students have risen. Schneider, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that American states and schools are fixated on putting students in the kinds of math courses that are supposed to be “rigorous,” but in truth are anything but.

On the one hand, more students than ever are taking tougher math high school math classes—Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and calculus—and taking them earlier in school, he explains. On paper, Schneider explains, it seems like a “remarkable change.” They’re also getting better grades in those classes: The average math GPA has risen from 2.2 to 2.6 since 1990.

But here comes the rub. Schneider, the former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, notes that students who take various high school math classes are actually doing worse than they did 30 years ago, as judged by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (Check out Figure 5.) He also looks at data from international tests.

“Students who stopped at Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II all scored lower on NAEP in 2008 than the students enrolled in the same courses in 1978,” Schneider writes. “The only bright spot is that students completing calculus now do about as well as their peers from thirty years ago.”

Schneider also knocks down a couple possible explanations for these unsettling trends. One of them is that the flat scores are primarily due to a decline in the U.S. population of higher-scoring white students at the high school level. That trend is indeed occurring, he says, but so what? It hasn’t prevented an increase in the math scores among 9- and 13-year-olds.

Many of the math courses with impressive-sounding titles, Schneider concludes, are simply not what they seem. The responsibility to ensure that math courses are top-notch rests largely on states, which have not shown an inclination to make sure that curricula and tests are holding students to high standards. (Some say that under No Child Left Behind, states haven’t had much incentive to do so.)

“If policymakers decide that a mark of a successful high school career is completion of Algebra II, then schools enroll more students into a course called Algebra II,” he says. “But not all math courses are equal—and it is easier to rebrand courses and still teach low-level math than it is to increase the rigor of math instruction.”

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