Why no gains in 12th-grade math?

Math scores are improving, especially among low-performing students, in elementary and middle school, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. But high school math scores haven’t moved much. And reading scores have declined in high school. Are increased graduation rates to blame?

One hypothesis is about fade-out: The improvements at the elementary level are ephemeral, perhaps because the way math or reading is taught doesn’t set students up for future success. In reading, for example, it’s quite likely that a heavy focus on phonics is helping students to decode better—and post better scores as nine-year-olds—but isn’t giving them the vocabulary or content knowledge to keep making progress in middle school. Another hypothesis is that our high schools aren’t as strong as our elementary schools, perhaps because they haven’t been the focus of as much reform and attention.

Higher graduation rates could be a factor too, Petrilli writes. “We have twelfth-graders in school today who previously would have dropped out. And those students are likely to be very low-achieving.”


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  1. In my experience there are only two types of students still taking math in the 12th grade.

    The first type is the honors/AP student who is taking advanced math classes like Calculus and Trig. These students have been getting A’s all through high school, so there is no room for improvement.

    The second type is the one attempting to pass Algebra I for the third time so they can graduate.Their grades tend to remain in the D/F range…again, no improvement.

    Most “Average” students stop taking Math after passing Algebra II as Juniors…..

    • tim-10-ber says:

      gahrie — WIth more school districts requiring 4 years of math — through pre-calc or calc – do you expect to see any changes with the 2012 NAEP results? Thanks!!

      • Sean Mays says:

        tim-10: It’s more muddled than that. Some states have passed a requirement for 4 years of math, but allow “Algebra I” to be split over 2 years (Algebra A and Algebra B). Plus there are other paths in math, the 4th year needn’t be pre-calc or calc; stats for example could follow algebra II nicely. I don’t have hard data for you; just pointing out there are other paths.

        I recently helped write a charter for a high school, one of the things we specifically required for graduation was 4 units of math; mainly to avoid senior atrophy. It was envisioned that pre-calc OR stats would be the typical end-point; although Calc would have been fine too!

    • In my experience there are only two types of students still taking math in the 12th grade.

      Then you don’t have much experience. I’ve taught algebra I, algebra II, and geometry. I had 2 or 3 seniors in Algebra (out of 100), 6 or 7 seniors in geometry (out of 65) and over half of my 90 students in Algebra 2.

      Algebra 2, for those who don’t know, is usually a remedial version of Algebra II/Trig, so it’s by no means an advanced class.

      • Fair enough. I am not a math teacher, and most of my students are trapped in the ELL program, so my experiences may very well not be typical.

  2. In fact, my school this year was an NAEP site, and the kids chosen for testing were juniors, not seniors.

  3. Cranberry says:

    And those students are likely to be very low-achieving.Do we know that? Do students drop out solely due to academic issues? Or are social and family issues also important? Gifted kids seem to drop out at the same rate as students as a whole drop out–so why should we assume scores would rise due to dropouts?

    A student may have behavior issues, but be able to do basic math. Grades can be based upon a student’s compliant behavior. It doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t do well enough on a standardized test.

  4. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Reading scores decline in high school because the kids stop reading. Instead of being a big part of the day’s instruction, reading is assigned as homework, which weak students do not do. Even staying at the same reading level requires practice.

  5. “The question is how to interpret these trends.”

    “Let me float a third theory: ”

    Apparently, not having enough data doesn’t seem to matter.

    How about the idea that it’s easier to fix the simple stuff. Look at 4th grade NAEP math questions. Why ask about what’s going on in high school? Why not ask why the NAEP tests are so stinking simple in 4th grade that it was easy to improve the scores? Also, what are the raw percent correct scores? Relative improvement won’t help you fix systemic problems. Also, are the difficulty levels of NAEP calibrated on some linear scale? While some kids head off to a STEM career math track in high school and others head off to the barely passing algebra track (for whatever reason), why would an aggregate math score be useful?

    In high school, it doesn’t matter if you have 3 gaps or 10 gaps, you will still get many problems wrong. Then again, I don’t have enough data, and I don’t look to NAEP as a guess and check tool for trying to improve math education.

  6. As someone who took math during all four years of high school, I had Algebra I in 9th, Geometry and Computer Math (two separate courses) in 10th, and Algebra II/Trig in 11th, and some pre-calc in 12th grade. I would have to agree that with the exception of the top students in a class, very few students are actually taking math (unless they need to take it as part of remediation) and that exit exams are finding a very interesting trend (students who get A’s and B’s in math, but cannot pass math exit exams geared at the 8th to 10th grade level).

    Of course, wait until the students wind up going to college, and not making it past the first year due to the amount of remediation they need.

    • Why isn’t it a requirement for all high school students to take 4 years of Math and 4 years of Science? As for me, I took Algebra I in 9th Grade; Algebra II and Geometry in 10th Grade; Trig in 11th Grade; and Calculus in 12th Grade.

      • Sean Mays says:

        Two answers: Few colleges require it. Could it be made to stick given the failure rates we experience getting kids through even Algebra I?

        What’s the forth year of science? Physics? Any decent physics class at the senior level should require Algebra I and Geometry, minimum. Heck, Chemistry is tough without decent algebra skills. The trend lately has been toward raising graduation requirements, but they don’t seem to be percolating down to increased performance that I’ve noticed.

      • momof4 says:

        Requiring more math and science of all kids will only have the effect of cheating those kids with the ability, preparation and motivation to handle the “real thing”, particularly at schools too small to offer two levels of each class. I now live in a state that now requires algebra 1 and 2, geometry, chemistry and physics (in addition to bio), starting with the current freshmen. Schools in the (handful of) cities will offer the “real” and the “light” versions, but the small schools (more than a few with 100 or less in the HS) can’t – therefore cheating the very kids who have the potential for STEM careers.

        I have no problem requiring that for college prep; the problem is that not everyone belongs in college prep. The college-for-all push is misguided, at best, and creates more problems than it solves.