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What’s Happening With High School Math?

By Sean Cavanagh — April 29, 2009 3 min read
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An objective observer looking at course-taking patterns in middle and high school math in the United States, as shown in national data released this week, could argue that this country’s students have made enormous strides. Thirteen-year-olds are more likely to take introductory algebra today than ever before: 30 percent of them reported being enrolled in that class today, as opposed to just 16 percent two decades ago. Thirty-two percent said they’re taking prealgebra, compared with 19 percent in 1986.

Precalc or calc? Among 17-year-olds, 19 percent report having taken that class in high school, while just 6 percent could make that claim in 1978. Algebra 2 or trigonometry? The beat goes on: 52 percent said they had taken that class as their highest course, while only 37 percent reported having done so 30 years ago.

Yet as my colleague Mary Ann Zehr aptly noted in her story yesterday, if you look at U.S. high schoolers’ actual test scores, that’s where the good news ends. While middle-, and especially early-grades math scores have risen on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, there’s been almost no gain among 17-year-olds for the last 35 years. The scores among high school students today is 306 on a 500-point NAEP scale; it was 304 back in 1973.

Across the country, states and districts are requiring students to take more math, with more impressive-sounding titles (Algebra 1, Algebra 2) than ever before. So where’s the disconnect?

One possibility, which has been voiced by a lot of math experts: The math courses being taught in schools aren’t living up to their titles. If a school or state requires students to enroll in an Algebra 1 or Algebra 2 course, the temptation among school officials is to water it down. Some teachers I’ve interviewed in the past put it in pretty plain terms: If struggling students were forced to take authentic Algebra 1 or Algebra 2 content, they’d flunk those courses or barely scrape by. As a result, courses with the same descriptors carry very different expectations. (See an entry of mine about data presented earlier this year by federal statistics official Peggy Carr on how students receiving an A in high school math scores often fare quite differently on NAEP.)

Another issue is the quality of the teaching of these courses. If schools are forced to enroll more students in tough courses, like Algebra 1 or 2, earlier in school, it stands to reason that teachers who were leading more basic math classes are going to be pressed into duty in the more demanding classes—whether they’re ready or not. One researcher I spoke with recently pointed to another problem. Some teachers who are used to presenting math content, such as Algebra 1, to older students, are flummoxed when asked to work with middle schoolers. Working with younger students requires different math teaching skills, such as the ability to present content across a broad range of ability levels, the researcher told me.

Poor-quality middle and high school math courses, of course, are hardly the only likely culprit. Students who score poorly on NAEP almost certainly stumbled in math at several points along the K-12 math continuum. But you have to think that the discrepancy between students’ relatively impressive course transcripts and their weak NAEP performance will prompt some serious reflection among policymakers and researchers in the months and years ahead.

A couple points worth noting in the NAEP data. Despite the overall stagnation among 17-year-olds in math, scores among the lowest-achieving teenagers (those in the bottom 10th and 25th percentiles) have risen, albeit slowly, since the 1970s. Top-tier students’ scores are flat: a 343 score today, compared with a 345 back in 1978. But despite the relative progress of low-performers, the gains among struggling students were much greater among 9- and 13-year olds.

One expert on testing quoted in Mary Ann’s story speculates that the curriculum and teaching reforms implemented in early-grades math in this country haven’t borne fruit on high school test scores yet. Do you agree? What causes do you see in the disconnect between the performance in elementary- and middle-grades math and what’s happening in high schools?

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