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Debate has raged for years over whether today's students rely too heavily on calculators. But there is general agreement that students ready for college need to know the standard math algorithms - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division - and have a deep understanding of math concepts.
They should know how to use a graphing calculator, how to compute without one and be able to determine when using one will help them solve a problem.
It's also important for students and parents to know that college instructors' policies vary widely. Some always allow students to use calculators for tests and some don't. And calculators are not allowed in the Graduate Record Exam required to enter many graduate school programs.
By GreatSchools Staff
Your child will not only miss out on a year of math instruction, but she'll have a hard time passing a college placement exam if her skills are rusty. Placement tests have become a "hidden set of standards," says Bill Moore, director of the Transition Mathematics Project, an initiative in Washington state aimed at getting more students better prepared for college math.
Moore says this doesn't just happen to poor students.
"Sometimes students are pushed too hard and too fast," says Moore. "They rush through the curriculum, they take their senior year off, they take a placement test - and have to take remedial math."
Does every student need to take calculus?
One major study suggests that Advanced Placement (AP) calculus is excellent preparation for students who are ready for it. While U.S. students overall ranked second from the bottom in the 2003 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) test, AP calculus students ranked first in the world.
But that doesn't mean high school calculus is right for every student.
"When we say take four years of math, people automatically think calculus because in many high schools, that's all there is," says Moore.
He noted that schools offer AP statistics or math modeling. "These alternatives need to be more available," he said.
If you're uncertain about whether calculus is the next step your student should take, talk to his math teacher about whether he's ready. There may be better math options at a nearby community college if the high school doesn't offer them.
Francis "Skip" Fennell, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, emphasizes that algebra and geometry are the most important subjects to be mastered in high school. As president of the K-12 math teachers' organization, he says he's gotten this advice from college math professors:
"Make sure they learn algebra and geometry. Let us do the calculus."
Get to know the skills your child will need, not just the required classes. Wilson, the Johns Hopkins math professor, reviewed the states' K-12 math standards for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. He recommends that parents who want to make sure their students are getting prepared for college compare the topics in their students' textbooks to the California standards for algebra I, geometry, algebra II and pre-calculus.
While math standards vary widely from state to state, Wilson called California's "the gold standard."
Efforts to Boost College Readiness A number of initiatives have been launched to help more students be more prepared for college math. Among them:
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