HomeAcademics & ActivitiesAcademic Skills

Is Your Child Ready for College Math?

Help your high school student gain the necessary math skills to succeed in college and beyond.

By GreatSchools Staff

Your high-school student is on track to complete the math classes required by your state university. He may even have already passed the high school exit exam that your state requires. Does that mean he's prepared for college math?

Not necessarily.

Many Students Aren't Ready

Of the students in the high school class of 2006 who took the ACT for college admissions, less than half tested at a level indicating they would earn a C or higher in college algebra, the ACT reported. In another survey, one released in 2005 by the national nonprofit Achieve Inc., college instructors estimated that half of their students were inadequately prepared to do college math. (To see these PDF files, you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download here.)

A significant number of these students probably wound up taking remedial math once they got to college. That means it is likely to take them longer and cost them more to get their college degrees. Studies also show that they are at higher risk for dropping out of college altogether.

At a time when an increasingly competitive global marketplace has focused attention on the need for math skills and when students are taking more standardized tests than ever, how did so many students graduate so unprepared?

Some of them didn't take enough math, some took the wrong math and some managed to pass the classes without learning the math. The high school exit exams many of them passed were designed to test 10th-grade skills, not college readiness.

The statistics are scary. They've prompted finger-pointing by educators and government officials, and they've also spurred the creation of programs aimed at improving students' readiness for college math.

What Do Students Need to Know to Succeed in College Math?

Professor W. Stephen Wilson, who teaches freshman calculus at Johns Hopkins University and is also a former senior advisor for mathematics in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, answers the question this way:

"Arithmetic. You really have to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide with pencil and paper, do ratios, propositions and percentages, and work multi- step word problems that apply arithmetic."

Then he ticks off the list of classes a college-bound student should take: "Algebra I, geometry, algebra II and some trig."

Your Child Needs Math Every Year

Be sure your student takes algebra I and above - not business math, consumer math or general math.

If your child took her first year of algebra in the seventh or eighth grade, she is likely to be able to fulfill minimum admissions requirements for all but the most selective colleges by the end of her junior year. The idea of taking a break from math in her senior year might sound pretty appealing.

Bad idea, say math professors and researchers.

"A gap without math will make taking whatever math they have to take in college extremely difficult," says Wilson.

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?"