Dumb and dumber

This article entitled “High school math failing to make the college grade” doesn’t tell any college math professor who’s taught freshman-level math recently anything we didn’t already know. Namely:

Students are heading to college less prepared for math than they were a decade or two ago, forcing colleges and universities to rewrite textbooks and add more review work and remedial courses.

Math professors in the Lehigh Valley laid the blame on integrated math programs that don’t emphasize basic skills, high-stakes testing and the push to give students higher-level math courses at increasingly younger ages.

“Many bright students are hurried through algebra and trigonometry courses on their way toward statistics and calculus,” said Marie Wilde, chairwoman of the mathematical and information sciences program at Cedar Crest College in Allentown.

”They arrive at college without the critical skills they should have spent much more time developing, rather than jumping prematurely into what has traditionally been considered college-level work.”

Phi Beta Cons, who get the hat tip for this article, call it a consequence of dumbing down the math curriculum in high school. I think it’s more accurate to call it a dumbing up, since the problem is apparently originating from hurrying students through basic courses so that they can take calculus and statistics — which used to be considered advanced to the point of being inaccessible to all but the most skilled students — earlier in their high school years.

Is it really the fault of integrated curricula, high-stakes testing, and “dumbing up”? Or is this phenomenon — which I do not doubt is real — more deeply rooted in cultural causes, particularly in the popular culture and in the family?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Student culture, Teaching

5 responses to “Dumb and dumber

  1. When I was in high school, nobody taught either calculus or statistics until college.

  2. Jackie

    I’m not sure what the “cause” is of the students being less prepared. Sadly, I think it is a combination of factors. As one who works in a high school, depending on to whom you are speaking the emphasis is on either

    1) test scores (junior year for NCLB and/or college entrance exam scores)
    2) AP courses (% of students taking and/or % of students earning 3’s or better)
    3) taking calc by senior year
    4) students deeply understanding the math they are doing, instead of rushing through content
    5) what ever the parents want for their child (even if it isn’t the best option for the child)

    Also, our state requires that all students have 3 years of math to graduate including a year of algebra and a year of geometry. Many students enter as freshman without a basic understanding of operations with integers (let alone the natural numbers), or of the relationship between fractions/decimals/percents. Yet due to high stakes testing and the “everyone is going to college” mentality, just about every student is placed in Alg I during his/her frosh. year.

    Sorry for the ranting. Just came home from the first day of summer school. Which reminds me #6 – student apathy (or what do I have to do to get a 61%).

  3. I am old… I had to test into Algebra 1 in 9th grade. Most people took pre-algebra.

    Did you notice that it takes the exact same time for high achieving kids and low performers to progress through the exact same class. The only difference is at what point to the kids start taking the class. I would like to see schools offer a stretched out math curriculum.

  4. I’m a college English teacher, so you may wonder why I am weighing in on this. It is from my homeschooling that I have an opinion.

    I think that we are asking students to do more sooner, in that calculus is seen as de rigueur for a student going to college. I think that if we had strong math students only taking Algebra 1 their freshman year we would be better off. –And I say that even though my liberal arts son took Algebra 1 as an eighth grader. But it was because we had already done multiple math courses for pre-algebra.

    When my older son started at the community college, he tested into calculus without ever having taken anything but two years of algebra and a year of geometry. I insisted that he take trigonometry and pre-calculus. I am not sure how useful those were for him, since he is just starting calculus in the fall, but I wanted him to have the strongest background he could. He plans at this point to be a math major.

    So even though I think we should slow down math, both of my sons took higher math courses early. My youngest will be in Algebra 2 his freshman year. My eldest will be taking calculus at college his junior year.

    I think that must mean there are no simple answers.

  5. Rory: You said “Did you notice that it takes the exact same time for high achieving kids and low performers to progress through the exact same class. The only difference is at what point to the kids start taking the class.”

    I think that’s a very interesting quantitative observation. Both sets of students will approach mastery asymptotically — provided they are working on the class — and over time there won’t be much of a difference between the two. The main difference is that the lower-level students will learn at a faster rate in the beginning. Sort of an educational application of Newton’s Law of Cooling.