Texas Ed: Comments on Education from Texas

November 16, 2006

Not all math classes are created equal

Texas has the solution to poor math scores–require more math classes for graduation. It’s part the new “4-by-4” curriculum that’s supposed to raise standards and better prepare students for college.

Tougher classes may await Texas’ college-bound | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle:

In September, the board gave a tentative nod to a plan that would allow students to choose from a variety of courses, including some lower-level math and science classes, for their fourth credit. But many in the business community and some concerned parents are stepping up pressure on the board to require more-difficult courses for seniors.

Inevitably, you’re going to hear about how students are going to college not prepared for majors that require advanced science and math. Something like this:

Tougher classes may await Texas’ college-bound | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle:

“A lot of key occupations like engineering and nursing are suffering because we’ve taken our eye off the prize and watered down the curriculum so much that it builds very little skills in students by the time they’ve graduated from high school,” said George Edwards Jr., a former trustee of Cypress-Fairbanks ISD who favors requiring challenging courses such as physics and pre-calculus.

Edwards, a certified public accountant with Exxon Mobil Corp., represents the 160-member Cy-Fair Minority Parents Association in his demand for tougher standards.

And someone will also say something about how high school graduates are surprised to find that they need remediation once they get to college.

Tougher classes may await Texas’ college-bound | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle:

Board member David Bradley, R-Beaumont, said he thinks the 15-member elected board will go with the tougher standards. He said something has to be done because half of entering college freshmen require remedial instruction in math or English.

With a solution this obvious and such a catchy name, how could it not succeed? Even Bill Gates is on the standards bandwagon. Well, some educators have pointed out that not everyone is going to be an engineer and schools need some flexibility in addressing varying needs among students.

Tougher classes may await Texas’ college-bound | Chron.com – Houston Chronicle:

John Folks, superintendent of Northside ISD in San Antonio, hopes that the State Board will let districts count a variety of math and science courses for the fourth year.”The bottom line is, kids have different skills, different abilities, different interests,” said Folks, a former math teacher. “We don’t need to put every kid in the same box.”

Good point. People tend to forget that these international comparisons of student achievement don’t always compare apples with apples.

But ultimately, this solution will only have minimal affect on math scores because it doesn’t actually address the problem of course content and standards. Let me give you an example. Recently, there was an article about a high school student who graduated with honors and found herself taking remedial math classes in college. She was shocked and disappointed.

For all we know, she took four years of math and still needed remediation in college. Apparently, she didn’t have to take the SAT or ACT to get into college or if she did, no one explained to her what her scores mean. Of course, not all colleges require such entrance exams so she may have never had a clue.

Then there is the case of students taking Algebra I from one teacher who gives them an easy A and then find themselves hopelessly unprepared for Geometry or Algebra II. Not all Algebra teachers are created equal.

In either case, will adding a class called “Pre-Calculus” really improve the student’s math ability?

So before we mandate a fourth year of “tough” math and science, I think it might be useful for someone to take a look at all of those people taking remediation classes. If someone were to take the time to look, I bet they would find a group of students who do very well in college having only taken three years of math from competent teachers and others who need remediation even though they took “Pre-Calculus.”

Actually, that’s not fair to the many teachers who are assigned to teach a class titled “Algebra II” and expected to have a certain passing rate no matter what level of skill the students have when they enter the class at the beginning of the year.

As much as I loath even suggesting more testing, I think end of year course exams would be a better first step to improving math and science preparation rather than requiring additional courses. I’m sure that there are all kinds of preliminary investigations you could do with existing data and testing scores before you would even have to mandate course exams. In any case, until the powers that be can demonstrate that students how have passed an Algebra II class have actually mastered Algebra II content, I think we should hold off implementing “tougher” standards.

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