Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When is Pushing Children to Advance NOT a Good Thing?

A new study, released by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute, says that most eighth graders pushed to do Algebra I shouldn't be in that class. The bottom 10% of students taking the math NAEP are students taking Algebra I, Geometry or Algebra II, all traditionally considered high school courses.

The problem is that students didn't have the foundational skills to build upon successfully. They hadn't completely learned basic skills such as multiplication and computation. In order for students to excel in middle school mathematics courses, they need to have mastered 3rd thru 5th grade math. Middle school math develops higher order thinking skills in students: a requirement to excel in high-level math courses such as trigonometry and calculus.

I recently learned that the Jeffco School District, as one of its Accreditation Indicators for public schools, is measuring how many eighth grades are enrolled in Algebra I or higher. This immediately raises two important questions:

1. How will the district pay for students taking additional math courses in high school? About four years ago the district considered increasing the high school graduation requirements for math from 3 to 4, to match CCHE college entrance requirements, and decided they couldn't afford the estimated $7 million price tag for additional teachers and classrooms.

2. Will high schools adjust their math graduation requirements if a students is advanced a year? There isn't any incentive for students to advance a year if they don't "save" a year as Seniors. This is another example of where "seat time" often supercedes "subject mastery." Related to this is the question of whether the content of these high school math courses are considered essential content. Why is Calculus important for graduating seniors to know?

As the CCHE college entrance requirements increase for students graduating high school in 2010 or beyond, to four years of math, it'll be interesting to see if the graduation rate is affected and how school districts respond to this since the graduation rate is one of the Accreditation Indicators and closely monitored by policy makers.

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