Maryland's public schools are teaching mathematics in such a way that many graduates cannot be placed in entry-level college math classes because they do not have a grasp of the basics, according to education experts and professors.
College math professors say there is a gap between what is taught in the state's high schools and what is needed in college. Many schools have de-emphasized drilling students in basic math, such as multiplication and division, they say.
"We have hordes of students who come in and have forgotten their basic arithmetic," said Donna McKusick, dean for developmental education at the Community College of Baltimore County. College professors say students are taught too early to rely on calculators. "You say, 'What is seven times seven?' and they don't know," McKusick said.
Ninety-eight percent of Baltimore students signing up for classes at Baltimore City Community College had to pay for remedial classes to learn the material that should have been covered in high school. Across Maryland, 49 percent of the state's high school graduates take remedial classes in college before they can take classes for credit.
And the problem has been getting worse. The need for remedial math classes among Maryland high school graduates who had taken a college preparatory curriculum and went on to one of the state's two- or four-year colleges rose from 23 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2007, according to an Abell Foundation report released this spring.
While the problem is worse at community colleges, 15 percent of the freshmen at the University of Maryland, College Park must take a remedial math class before being able to move into college-level classes, said Denny Gullick, a math professor there. Some of those students come from out of state.
For Gabrielle Martino, holder of a doctorate in math from the Johns Hopkins University and a co-author of the Abell Foundation report, the bottom line is that students are being harmed because they have to pay for the remedial classes. When they get to college, "they are uniformly shocked that they were put into remedial math," she said.
The report recommends that the Maryland State Department of Education revamp its math standards and curriculum. The standards and curriculum determine what is tested on the Maryland School Assessments and, therefore, the material teachers are told to cover in their classes. And each year, the number of students passing the math MSAs has gone up, even as graduates are increasingly in need of remedial classes.
State education officials do not believe that major changes to the standards are needed.
"Obviously, we want our students to be successful when they go to college, but we also know that a number of the students who go to university haven't taken the math preparation that would enable them to be prepared," said Dixie Stack, director of curriculum at the state education department.
The call for change comes at a crucial time. The state is reviewing its five-year-old standards, and the National Governors Association is expected to release its common core standards in a few months. Maryland is one of 46 states that have agreed to support the development of those standards, essentially setting a national curriculum and testing in the core subjects of reading and math.
The question of how math is taught and what should be emphasized has been the subject of a long-running debate across the nation. Some math teachers have advocated giving students a deeper understanding of how math works while de-emphasizing the drill of solving many problems and learning math facts. On the other side, teachers say students need to be well grounded in the basics in order to move on to higher-level math.
State school board member Kate Walsh does not believe the state is alone. "Maryland has as much of a problem on its hands as any other state," she said.
Across the country, slightly more than one-third of college students enroll in remedial courses.
"This is really a national problem. States are working hard to address it, but the fact is that too many students require remediation when they enter college. The problem is more severe in math," said Danette Howard, director of research at the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has argued that no matter how math is taught, students should be focusing on fewer concepts each year. The group said students have knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep, and that school districts should teach fewer concepts each year and in greater depth. Presumably, that would enable students to master each concept and move on so that yearly review would be unnecessary.
Maryland public schools seem to be doing a better job in teaching math to top students, Gullick said. More students have been given the opportunity to take higher-level classes during their elementary, middle and high school years, and they end up not only having completed calculus, but often having taken the rigorous Advanced Placement calculus and scored at the top level on the exam.
"A third of the freshman class has taken AP calculus and placed out of calculus" at College Park, Gullick said, adding that the percentage of these high-level students has been growing.
On the other hand, he said, "we have seen a marked decline" in the skills of the students at College Park who are not considered in the "top caliber."
"We have an enormous number of students who have no arithmetic skills. This is a big issue," he said.
The Abell report is particularly critical of the Algebra I standards, saying that they are watered down because educators must teach material for the High School Assessments, which includes data analysis.
"It is not what any mathematician would consider an algebra course," said Stephen Wilson, a math professor at Hopkins and a co-author of the Abell report. "It is Maryland's image of what math is without consulting a mathematician."
Stack said the Algebra I High School Assessment is not intended to ensure that students are ready for college but to make sure they have the minimum skills needed to get a diploma. The standards that the test is based on are "intended to establish a floor for freshmen in high school, and by itself it does not constitute an Algebra I course," she said.
The fact that the state has a minimum standard does not mean a school system cannot teach at a higher level, she said.
Stack said she does not believe the state should make changes until after the release of the national standards being developed by a grass-roots coalition of 46 states. To do so would be a waste of time and taxpayer dollars, she said, because Maryland probably will adopt those standards.
However, Walsh said Maryland should alter its standards to meet mathematicians' concerns. She said she does not believe in waiting, because the process could take years.
"Maryland is taking a go-slow approach," the state school board member said. "I am afraid the push for national standards, while a good sign, will delay the equally important examination we need to take. ... I would prefer to move aggressively."
Frederick Chapple, an assistant professor of mathematics at Baltimore City Community College, said the city schools require students to take an Algebra II class before they can graduate, a requirement that is more stringent than the state's. But the level of the course, Chapple said, isn't Algebra II.
"There should be more collaboration with colleges to be sure that the Algebra II that is being taught in high school is on the same level as the Algebra II that we are teaching in remedial classes," Chapple said. He said high schools should provide all students with a college preparatory curriculum, so that if they decide in their last year of high school that they want to attend college they will be prepared.
Gullick and other professors say they want to work with public school teachers and administrators to determine what must be done to remedy the problem.
Students are being hurt by the current system, Gullick said, and changes should be made at high school and college levels.
Lacking the basics
High school students in 2006-2007 who needed remedial math in college
Region With college prep Without college prep
Anne Arundel 31% 44%
Baltimore City 37% 69%
Baltimore County 32% 45%
Montgomery 30% 42%
Prince George's 42% 55%
Maryland 32% 49%
Source: Abell Foundation