A new report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) tackles the U.S. algebra and mathematics dilemma and is the latest to suggest that not all students should be pushed to take algebra in the eighth grade.
“Solving America’s mathematics education problem,” by Duke professor Jacob L. Vigdor, examines cultural shifts that have resulted in new waves of interest in students’ mathematics performance.
Despite a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, high school students continue to perform poorly on math tests. That trend continues into college, where many new college students enroll in remedial math courses. The report notes that “the proportion of new college graduates who majored in math-intensive subjects has declined by nearly half over the past 60 years.”
The U.S. is in danger of slowed or lost progress if these trends continue, the report warns.
Moving students through algebra and other higher-level math courses can hurt their knowledge and performance if they enter the classes too soon. For example, in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, students who took algebra earlier than their peers scored 13 percentile points lower on a standardized test than students who took algebra on a regular schedule.
Some districts have tried to close the math achievement gap by excluding more challenging math topics. But this “dumbing down” hurts students who might want to pursue math majors in college and math-related careers, because they leave high school without skills that other students–their competition in college and the workforce–possess. Over the past 30 years, average SAT math scores have increased 20 points, but there has been a 25 percent drop in the number of college students majoring in math-centered subjects, according to recent research noted in the report.
“The root of America’s math problem is the conflation of two goals: improving the absolute performance of American students and closing gaps between high and low performers,” Vigdor notes. “Following the failure of a significant initiative to accomplish both goals simultaneously—the ‘new math’ movement of the mid-twentieth century—successive reforms have focused attention on bringing lower-performing students up to standards. In the process, the standards have been lowered, and the advancement of higher-performing students has been allowed to languish. Designers of the nation’s mathematics curriculum, in short, have fallen into an ‘achievement-gap trap,’ raising the relative performance of average students in part by permitting the absolute performance of the best students to decline.”