For the past two decades, schools across the country have pushed students to take high level math classes even when they aren't prepared for them. The result, says Tom Loveless in a blog post from the Brown Center on Education Policy, is that students arrive at college believing they are ready when they are not.
A study released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution's Loveless looks at Algebra II. In 1986, less than half of all 17-year-olds (44 percent) had completed Algebra II, Loveless said. By last year, three-fourths of students completed Algebra II.
Despite this huge increase, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not increased as would be expected. Loveless argues that getting more students into higher-level math has not translated into students actually learning more math. "As unprepared students flow through a series of counterfeit courses, the entire curricular system is corrupted," Loveless said.
In his blog post, Loveless points to other research that indicates how that corruption has played out in schools. Students who achieve good grades in their math classes but then arrive at college inadequately prepared. Delaying the introduction of Algebra I until students are fully prepared, he believes, could in fact give them better grounding to be successful in upper level classes.
In an interview, Loveless said he believes the problem begins when state legislators and policy makers decide when students should be accelerated. In some states, Algebra I has been mandated for all eighth-graders. "Let's let the people at the schools decide whether kids are ready for classes," he said.
Loveless has not looked at subjects other than math, but believes the issue extends throughout the curriculum.
The new common core standards do slow down math a bit. Algebra I would not be taught until ninth grade.
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