Vigdor writes that many concerns over U.S. math performance surfaced after World War II and the Cold War, when new math concepts became more abstract and students responded by “giving up rather than attempting” to master it. After a short period of renewed interest in math and math-related college majors, interest dropped again.
And with the focus on helping low-performing and average students, top-performing and advanced students have been harmed as math resources are shifted away from them to low-performing students in an effort to boost proficiency scores.
“Studies have verified the predictable consequence: gains to students just below the proficiency level have been offset by losses among more advanced students,” he writes.
He also notes that students who successfully pursue science, engineering, and math majors are those with high math performance on the SAT–“three-quarters of MIT undergraduates have math SAT scores of 750 or better. At a more moderately ranked engineering-focused campus, such as Purdue University, a math SAT score of 530 would place a student at the 25th percentile of the distribution, not the middle.
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“The inverse relationship between math-intensive majoring and average math SAT scores suggests that the nation faces a trade-off between offering moderately better math training to the average student and a rigorous training to students with greatest promise.”
This dilemma has carried over into the workforce and U.S. competitiveness.
“The preceding analysis suggests that the United States has made a clear trade over the past few decades. With the twin goals of improving the math performance of the average student and promoting equality, it has made math curriculum more accessible,” Vigdor says. “We can see the drawback to this more accessible curriculum among the nation’s top-performing students, who find themselves either less willing or less able to follow career paths in math, science, and engineering that are the key to innovation and job creation. In the name of preparing more of the workforce to take those jobs, we have harmed the skills of those who might have created them.”
The report contains a handful of solutions that might help struggling students better understand algebra and abstract math concepts, give advanced students a chance to develop even stronger math skills, and retain the nation’s competitive edge: