More than 50 percent of students who have completed Algebra II in high school find themselves in a remedial math course in college. (Even 13 percent of those who complete Calculus do.) How can this happen?
A new report suggests that these students have been pushed through basic math concepts, such as math modeling and complex measurement, so they can complete high school graduation requirements. The problem is that these students haven’t mastered the content along the way. (This is why the report, by the National Center on Education and the Economy, pushes for the elimination of Algebra II as a high school graduation requirement.)
This disconnect between requirements and reality illustrates a larger problem in the debate around college and career readiness, or the high school-to-work pipeline: High school teachers and college instructors each have their own ideas of what readiness looks like. But they don’t talk to each other (or the other key player, business) to be sure that what high school educators are preparing students for is the reality they’ll meet in college and careers.
“It’s letting people down,” said Phil Daro, a panelist at the report’s release event last week. Daro, co-chair of the report’s math panel, was speaking of this transition between high school and college. “It’s not that it’s badly designed,” he said, “it’s that it’s not designed at all.”
To complete the study, Daro and his colleagues reviewed syllabi, textbooks, coursework, and student grades from seven colleges and found:
- Students were not expected to complete complex writing tasks and were rarely asked to be critical thinkers.
- Reading assignments were often reduced to slideshows, flashcards, or videos.
- Many college programs required little or no math.
- Many college math courses consisted of middle school math concepts, which students had not mastered but needed for careers.
Catherine Snow, another panelist and co-chair of the report’s English panel, said that many students aren’t learning the skills necessary to read complex instruction manuals or file lengthy reports about malfunctioning industrial equipment.
Here’s where competency-based education can help. Competency-based education forces students to demonstrate mastery of concepts before they move to the next course or level. It also forces business and education to come together to identify what students must master to excel in the working world. That, in turn, determines a clear educational path for students that will likely lead them to employers’ doors.
And finally, competency-based education seems a prime model for community college students who need flexibility in scheduling, the ability to work at their own pace, and opportunities to earn credit based on work experience. (Prior learning assessments, or PLAs, allow students to demonstrate mastery of a concept without necessarily taking a course, instead relying on knowledge learned on the job.)
Perhaps most importantly, a competency-based approach means it is highly unlikely a student will find himself in an Algebra II class if he hasn’t mastered basic math.
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