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Is Your Child Ready for College Math?

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By GreatSchools Staff

Placement Tests Are "Hidden Standards"

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."

What About Calculus?

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:

  • The American Diploma Project includes 22 states working to prepare every high school graduate for college or work. The project breaks down college readiness skills into four: number sense and numerical operations; algebra; geometry; and data interpretation, statistics and probability, with examples of each.
  • The Transition Mathematics Project is a partnership of Washington's K-12 schools, two-year colleges and four-year public universities. The project has developed a set of college-readiness mathematics standards aimed at informing students and K-12 teachers what skills are needed for Washington's colleges - not just what classes to take - and bridging the gap between what's taught in K-12 classrooms and college lecture halls.
  • California has tackled its students' lack of college readiness with the Early Assessment Program. The state's high school juniors can take the California State University assessment test in their junior year of high school to test their knowledge of algebra and geometry while they still have a year of high school left to strengthen it.

Comments from readers

"How can you pass math if you don't learn it? Math problems begin in elementary school with poor math programs where children never master basic skills. If you don't understand addition and subtraction, you cannot do multiplication and division. Without the basics, algebra will be a mystery. Educators refuse to see the real problem and instead find excuses for poor math scores. "
"The bottom line is that many teachers never help the students learn how to THINK! Thinking is an obselete skill when in reality it is the only one necessary to be successful in math. Thinking has been replaced with repetition and regurgitation, none of which require much brain power. Not much is discussed of the why and how, rather emphasis is on the what only. Students who do poorly in math usually have poor thinking skills. Consider the nature of the problems on the math section on standardized tests. Half of them don't have anything to do with anything meaningful nor anything that the students has learned in a math class. Yet, these tests are supposed to predict the level of success a student is supposed to have in college math classes? The problems in the math section are testing only one thing - can the student think?"