Math and reading scores for 12th graders in the U.S. were at a historic low even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a massive shift to remote learning, according to results of the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress released in late 2020.
Three scholars explain why so many high school seniors aren’t proficient in these critical subjects.
Elizabeth Leyva, director of entry-level mathematics, Texas A&M University-San Antonio
One might expect the jump from high school to college mathematics to be a natural progression, or a small step up in difficulty or expectations. But over time it has actually become a chasm, and that chasm continues to grow.
More students are taking advanced coursework – algebra II or higher – in high school. But studying the material doesn’t mean that a student has truly learned it. As a result, a student can pass a course which should be a college preparatory course, such as algebra II, yet fail a standardized placement exam, or not score high enough on SAT/ACT tests to be deemed “college ready.”
Most high school teachers hold their students to a different set of expectations than college faculty do. In many cases, the policies are set by the school district, so high school teachers are simply upholding rules that the community and parents have pushed for. This can include allowing students to submit late work, retest on assessments they performed poorly on, and use a calculator for most assignments.
The rationale is well intentioned; high school students are young learners, and may need multiple opportunities to master a concept.
Multiple opportunities to pass means more students pass. But this generous assessment strategy has unintended consequences on student motivation and accountability. The effect is that students can earn a passing grade but not retain or master the material in a meaningful way. This is how a student can receive a B in algebra II, for example, but land in a developmental class when they enter college.
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