kitchen table math, the sequel: Tom Loveless on the algebra 2 problem

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Tom Loveless on the algebra 2 problem

From Algebra II and The Declining Significance of Coursetaking:
...taking and successfully completing an Algebra II course, which once certified high school students’ mastery of advanced topics in algebra and solid preparation for college-level mathematics, no longer means what it once did. The credentialing integrity of Algebra II has weakened.

The declining significance of successfully completing Algebra II highlights a dilemma. Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades. That prescription has worked in boosting enrollments. In 1986, less than half of all 17 year-olds (44%) had completed Algebra II, and for Black and Hispanic students, the rate was less than a third. Completing Algebra II is now commonplace. In 2012, about three-fourths of students completed Algebra II, and the race/ethnicity gaps associated with taking the course have narrowed significantly. (All NAEP data below are from the NAEP data explorer.)

Getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory. It has not coincided with students learning more math.


momod4 said...

The most recent scores on Montgomery County, MD's end-of-course math exams support this view. There are many more kids taking all of the math classes, but many fail the exam (but they still can pass the course). There has been a big push to get more kids into upper-division math, and acceleration was common. Now those chickens have come home to roost. It's pretty obvious that many kids did not take the "real" courses, because they were unable to do the "real" material. Teachers commenting on the WaPo article on the topic support this view. My kids attended MoCo schools and it's been widely known for over 25 years that the county-wide course descriptions really matched only those schools in affluent, highly-educated areas of the county (plus magnet schools); weaker schools did not teach the same material because most of their kids were unprepared and unable to do it. The top-HS parent/kid network has known for at least that long that each HS was setting their own passing grade, which for the top schools was 70% but could go as low as 25% at others. It was about 15 years ago that the county Board of Ed was shocked!shocked! to discover this and stopped the practice. The whole issue of admission to algebra I and its sequels is compounded by the fact that the kids who do well on the end-of-course exams are disproportionately from the usual subgroups and so are those who fail it. The county has a large number of whites (with many Jews) and Asians (China, Korea and India) in the area with the top schools and many minorities, including recent ELL immigrants, in other areas - so there's lots of politics involved. Of course, the problem starts in ES, which has abandoned traditional math(but I bet that the top ESs still teach it, or the kids all are tutored - probably both) for the progressive versions - the county made a big deal with Pearson.

Portlander said...

Well, to be fair, it's not just math. It's the entire K through Bachelor's degree track... including Masters for non-STEM majors. And PhD for education majors.

Lsquared said...

Another possible factor (from the correlation is not causation point of view) is that when Algebra 2 is not required, then taking it selects for those students who understood Algebra 1 well enough that they wanted to take Algebra 2. Once it becomes mandatory, then it's no longer a marker for selecting students who would choose to take a non-required math course.

lgm said...

It's hard for remedial students to get to Algebra II in four years of high school. Their sequence is: Algebra 1, double period; Get Ready for Geo; Geo, double period; Get Ready for Algebra II. That's it, four years of high school are over.

There is no royal road that allows one to make up time wasted in the birth to preK years. A better solution might just be adding a year to middle school and high school plus summer school each year.

momof4 said...

LSquared is right, IMHO. This issue goes back to self-esteem, 8th-grade algebra (which was then honors-only, usually with a pre-test or top grades in the preceeding course - B4 grade inflation), Latin, modern foreign languages, upper-division math, AP classes, debate etc. All correlated positively with various measures of academic success - but were really only proxy variables for identification of the most able students, because only such students took those courses. Each correlation was hailed as the miracle cure for low achievement, which was and is completely ridiculous. The courses didn't cause success because the kids who took them were significantly different (ability, preparation and/or motivation) from those who didn't. Twenty years later, it's more of the same. Putting kids who don't know basic multiplication, division, fractions and decimals - with NO calculator - in algebra is a recipe for failure.

Anonymous said...

lgm: I agree that some kids need more time, more repetition etc, but more time is not sufficient; there needs to be far better curriculum and more explicit instruction - starting in k. Kids who are behind need EFFICIENT instruction (and most kids benefit from it, too) - doing more discovery work in groups doesn't get it done There's a great example of this on - it sounds as if the kids are taking all morning on something that should be taught explicitly - with lots of similar problems for practice.

lgm said...

Anon, we're not doing discovery groups here in ele. It's Math in Focus.

The issues are the same two as always 1. zpd instruction is only done in pull-out via rTi and 2. student refusal to engage or cooperate with teacher.

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