Most community college students don’t need Algebra II, but do need mastery of middle-school math, concludes What Does It Really Mean To Be College and Work Ready?, a recent report by the National Center on Education and the Economy. In his Top Performers blog, NCEE’s Marc Tucker explains why he supports Common Core Standards, which require Algebra II content, but doesn’t think Algebra II should be graduation requirement.

Algebra II prepares students to take calculus, which fewer than five percent of U.S. workers will use on the job, writes Tucker. Why require it of everyone?

Some students, including many who will go on to STEM careers, should study Algebra II and beyond, including, if possible, calculus. But many others, going on to other sorts of careers, should study the advanced mathematics that is appropriate for the kind of work they will do. Homebuilders, surveyors and navigators might need geometry and trigonometry, whereas those going into industrial production or public health might want to pursue statistics and probability. We argued not for lowering the standards but for creating pathways through advanced mathematics in high school that make sense in terms of the kind of mathematics that may be most useful to students when they leave school and enter the workforce.

Phil Daro, who headed the team that wrote the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for mathematics, also co-chaired the NCEE study’s math panel. Daro writes that the Common Core math standards include “college ready” and STEM goals. The lower “college ready” standards are not as rigorous as a traditional Algebra II course, though they are “more demanding than the NCEE study found was necessary for success” in community college.

In writing the CCSS, we were charged with articulating one set of standards for all students that would be sufficient preparation for 4-year college programs. . . . we could not customize different standards for different students with different destinations. The principle behind this is social justice, but it has a cost. One could argue that it would be better to have the common standards end earlier, and specialized standards start sooner.

Indeed, my own view is that there should be two mathematics pathways to college readiness that split after grade 9: one for students with STEM ambitions and one for students with other ambitions.

To avoid “social justice risks associated with different pathways,” Daro suggests making both pathways qualify for college admission without remediation.

By 10th grade, students would have to decide whether to take the easier non-STEM path or tackle college-prep math courses that keep the door open to a career in engineering, math and hard sciences.

Now, many students wander through years of middle-school and college-prep math without understanding what they’re doing. If they’re assigned to remedial math in college, the odds are they won’t earn a degree or a job credential. Is that social justice?

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