Why Algebra 2 Isn’t 2 Much

No, it’s not about social media or online learning. My inner mathlete, who still enjoys factoring an equation and knows many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse, remains dismayed by changes to high school graduation requirements in Texas, and this time, she has data.

Clifford Adelman, who holds a doctorate and boasts more than 30 years of experience in education policy, reported in 2006,

The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in precollegiate momentum, with the tipping point of momentum toward a bachelor’s degree now firmly above Algebra 2. But in order for that momentum to pay off, earning credits in truly college-level mathematics on the postsecondary side is de rigeur. (xix, emphasis added)

By moving into the top two quintiles of the curriculum measure and completing a high school mathematics course beyond Algebra 2, African-American students who started out in a four-year college would hypothetically increase their bachelor’s degree attainment rate from 45 percent to 73 percent; Latino students who did the same would hypothetically increase their bachelor’s degree attainment rate from 61 percent to 79 percent….In other words, curriculum counts, particularly for minority students. (emphasis added)

Just to be clear. Seven years ago, a major study that found very few statistically significant variables for completion of a 4-year degree DID find that taking math BEYOND Algebra 2 in high school makes a difference. It’s especially dramatic for African-American and Latino students, who accounted for 50.3% and 12.9% respectively of Texas K-12 enrollment in the 2010-11 school year (source: report from the Texas Education Agency).

Here is a finding that today probably affects more than 63% of students in the state, and we’re deciding that kids don’t need Algebra 2?

I understand and applaud the effort to move students towards a high school diploma and into community college, certificate programs, skilled labor, and the workforce. If Algebra 2 is preventing driven, capable kids from becoming oil technicians, cosmetologists, dental hygienists, etc., then there should be an alternate path to graduation.

It sure seems, however, that those students who plan maybe sort of to get a Bachelor degree someday should be pushed not only into Algebra 2 but also another, more advanced course like Pre-Calculus or Statistics or a new Algebra 3. Students aren’t always aware of how much math is required for majors outside of STEM disciplines — all education majors at my university, for example, take 3 college-level math courses, even if they plan to teach English or social studies.

I know that here in Texas, folks have been saying that performance on an Algebra 1 assessment predicts college success just fine. Frankly, I’ve seen too many new college students (with Algebra 1, Algebra 2 and passing TAKS math scores under their belts) place into the lowest level of remedial college math. There’s something wrong with this picture, even when you consider testing anxiety. What is being taught, and more importantly, how is it being taught?

So to those reformers worried about too much testing? Forget the testing. Don’t test beyond Algebra 1. Parents, try not to worry about math being hard and dinging your child’s GPA. Read Clifford Adelman, who found that class rank didn’t matter much at all compared to the level of mathematics students completed in high school.

Beg, bribe, cajole, and shove students into rigorous math classes.


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