STEM Beats - standards

Dropping the Algebra Requirement: a Solution, or a Surrender?

August 8, 2017

The Cal State system, which enrolls almost half a million California students, will no longer require them to pass Intermediate algebra. The decision may have been necessary, but it raises unsettling questions about the prospects of a diverse STEM workforce.

It’s reasonable to see Cal State's move as a simple case of education Realpolitik. Too many students get stuck in the bottleneck of intermediate algebra, a remedial course that delays their progress, drains their bank accounts, and raises dropout rates—all without conferring college credit.

Such august organizations as The Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, and Jobs for the Future have endorsed the move, arguing that other math courses are more appropriate for students who don’t plan to major in STEM fields. Their logic is compelling: Why uphold the idea of intermediate algebra for all when it stands between so many students and college graduation?

And yet the move risks exacerbating the very problems that forced administrators’ hands in the first place. If past is prologue, many poor and minority students will avoid intermediate algebra rather than fail it.* The Cal State System’s change could effectively codify the informal sorting mechanisms that have long kept those students out of STEM fields.

Cal State’s move could also send a message to high schoolers, their parents, and their schools that algebra is too hard for some students--and not that important, anyway. Poor and minority teens, many of whom have never met anyone in a STEM field, may well take that message to heart. If so, they are essentially taking themselves out of contention for many of the nation’s highest-paying careers.

This is not a call for Cal State to uphold the principle of algebra for all at the expense of the many thousands who cannot complete the course. High ideals don’t amount to much if they don’t offer real help to real people. Rather, the end of algebra for all in so many colleges and universities underscores the urgent need to expand math education opportunities in K-12.  

Too many poor and minority students face barriers in their communities and schools that all but destine them to opt out of intermediate algebra. Many start Kindergarten behind, and their elementary and middle school teachers say they lack support to teach math. Teachers are less likely to recommend high-achieving minority students for gifted programs or algebra in eighth grade. Poor and minority students are much more likely to attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. Indeed, of the roughly 41,000 black and Latino high schoolers who had the potential to succeed on AP math and science tests in 2014, only half actually took them.

It may be necessary—at least for now—to surrender to the harsh realities that drove Cal State’s decision. Yet we still need to uphold challenging standards in K-12. Ensure that teachers of math have the support they need. Give students more and better counseling about the courses they need to take for different careers. Help schools prepare students for AP classes and tests. Coax more STEM majors into the classroom, particularly in poor schools. The list goes on.

Yes, this is a tall order, but the decision to drop math requirements should never be a signal that we’re giving up on preparing every high school graduate to pursue a STEM degree in college if she chooses to do so. All too often, we limit, rather than expand, students' options.

Tags: minorities, math, standards

Do teachers have the resources they need in math? Troubling trends

June 13, 2017

Amidst the current avalanche of political news, it’s easy to forget that K-12 academic standards were recently a topic for fiery debate at statehouses and dinner tables across the country. But let’s not forget one of that debate’s biggest lessons: Standards could founder if teachers lack the tools and support to reach them.

New York State, which is still feeling the aftershocks of the debate, offers a compelling illustration of this lesson. The state adopted Common Core State Standards in 2010 and began implementing the standards in 2012. The state’s teachers union withdrew their support for the new standards in spring 2013, arguing that teachers lacked teaching materials and time to prepare students for tough state tests keyed to the new standards. The state’s plans to evaluate teachers using the results of those tests simply fanned the flames.

Survey data from The Nation’s Report Card reflect the dramatic decline in New York teachers’ satisfaction:

Fewer teachers say they have the support they need to teach math--chart

Between 2011 and 2013, the share of students whose teachers said they had “all” or “most” of the resources they needed to teach math tumbled by a stunning 24 percentage points.

Teachers’ discontent has had a lasting impact. Just this month, New York State is completing a review and revision of its state standards. State leaders backed down on much of their standards-based reform agenda after teachers found common cause with parents, who rebelled against challenging and time-consuming state tests tied to those standards.

The irony here is that New York State was a trailblazer in creating math curriculum and materials aligned to the new standards states adopted across the country. In 2012, the state funded the development of what would later become Eureka Math, which has become the nation’s most widely adopted math curriculum, and one of the most highly rated. 

That help came too late for teachers who would be accountable for student test results so soon after tougher standards came on the scene--and before the ink was dry on the new curricula. The causes of New York’s anti-standards revolt are complex, but teachers can quickly sour on standards if they lack the support they need.  

New York State offers an object lesson for the United States. While New York’s trendline in the chart above is alarming, the national trend is also unsettling. The percentage of U.S. students whose teachers feel they have the resources they need dropped steadily but significantly between 2011 and 2015. Almost one third of U.S. eighth-graders in 2015 were in math classrooms with teachers who said they lacked support. Advocates for standards should watch this trend carefully when new data come out for 2017.

Schools across the country are still adjusting to more demanding expectations for what their students should know and be able to do. The public debate over the standards may have ebbed, but the need to give teachers the resources and materials they need has not diminished one bit. 

Tags: standards, math, teachers

New Vital Signs Data: Access to Challenging STEM Courses

May 4, 2017

Do high schoolers in your state have access to challenging courses in math and science? Change the Equation has just released new data on high school students' access to classes like calculus or physics. We found that few states offer anything approaching universal access to such courses. Millions of students attend high schools that do not even offer those courses. As is so often the case, students of color fare worst.

Nationally, one in four Latino students and nearly one third of black high schoolers attend schools that did not offer calculus in the 2013/14 school year. American Indian students faced even worse odds. Access to physics classes was only moderately better.

Students in schools that do not offer calculus and physics

Many students across the country couldn't take a calculus of physics class even if they wanted to. That's a problem. Watch this space in the coming weeks for more analysis of this problem and how states can tackle it.

In the meantime, head over to our Vital Signs website to see where your state stands.

Tags: math, science, standards

Linda Rosen: Not Ready for College

April 27, 2016

I am delighted to rediscover my inner policy wonk as a first-year member of the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB). But the fun of digging into data does little to mitigate my dismay over today’s release of the 2015 Mathematics Results at Grade 12 from The Nation’s Report Card. Only a quarter of the representative nationwide sample of 12th graders who took the assessment last year scored at or above the Proficient level of skill. Only a quarter of our high school graduates demonstrated what is defined as “solid academic performance”? Yikes--that is very worrisome. Equally troubling is the realization that 12th-grade math scores have remained essentially unchanged for over a decade, while reading scores have decreased by five points since 1992, the earliest year with comparable 12th grade data.

Achievement gaps appear in these newest NAEP results just as they have for other grade levels and subjects. Forty-seven percent of Asian students and 32 percent of white students scored proficient or above, compared with only 7 percent of black students and 12 percent of Hispanic students. Students from families with lower incomes persistently perform lower than those from families with higher income.

A quick look at results from the survey questions that accompany the 12th grade test reveals that a whopping 78 percent of 12th graders have never taken computer programming in high school. One bright spot given efforts to increase diversity in the tech workforce is that black students seem most likely among their peers to have taken computer programming, although this holds for only 29 percent of black 12th graders. 

But there’s more troubling news. In 2013, NAGB began using NAEP to estimate the percentage of grade 12 students who possess the knowledge and skills to be prepared for first-year college coursework. In 2013, an estimated 39 percent were ready to succeed in credit-bearing coursework. In 2015, an estimated 37 percent were prepared for first-year college mathematics courses. It doesn’t say much for our education system when just over a third of our high school graduates are ready for post-secondary education, whether it is a certificate, a two-year institution or a 4-year college.

Change the Equation was launched in 2010 with the goal of helping ensure that all young people graduate from high school STEM literate. They don’t all have to become engineers or computer scientists or chemists, but they need STEM knowledge to pursue whatever career is most enticing. We know that nearly every career paying a living wage requires some post-secondary education. Seeing that the majority of our high school graduates are not prepared is more bad news. The business community often thinks about its progress in terms of quarterly reports. Does the education community think about progress in terms of quarter centuries? Yes, we have to take the long view when we try to improve something as complex as America’s education system, but at some point the nation’s patience will understandably run out. 

Tags: computer science, math, standards, higher education

Will Low Expectations Undermine New Tests?

March 18, 2016

Two new studies send mixed messages about how well higher state standards and new state tests are changing the equation in preparing young people for college and careers.

First, the good news. A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concluded that the content and quality of tests that judge how well students have mastered Common Core standards “have largely delivered on their promises.” The study evaluated four different English and math tests that 30 states are using to measure mastery of the Common Core.

Overall, the study concludes, while there are opportunities for refinements, the tests are rigorous and well aligned with the standards—and “major improvements” over previous generations of tests. Bravo!

Now, the downside. States remain all over the map when it comes to proficiency rates (in other words, the scores students need to pass those new and improved tests).  A study by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that, even though 30 states use tests aligned to the Common Core, only a handful set proficiency rates as high as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a common benchmark for rigor.

As AIR points out, states embraced common high standards “partly to establish more rigor and uniformity in what students should know to be on track for college or career as they approach high school graduation.” While the rigor of many new tests is heartening, the lack of uniformity in state expectations for proficiency is troubling.

Where do we go from here? As we’ve argued from the get-go, implementing high standards to prepare all young people for a competitive world was never going to be easy. We’re not in the clear yet—not by a long shot. Low proficiency standards perpetuate the lie that most high school graduates are equally prepared for career pathways that lead to good jobs. Students and parents have been paying the steepest price for that lie. They should not have to find out after graduation, when it’s too late, that college and rewarding careers are out of reach.

The Fordham researchers took on this central question: Are the new tests good and worth fighting for? Indeed, they are. The challenge now is to raise expectations for performance on most states’ tests. Business leaders must keep up the pressure in their states to ensure that all high school graduates are justifiably confident that they are ready to take on the world.

Tags: standards