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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How much math?

British students who pass a national math exam at 15 or 16 don't have to take any more math, unless they need higher-level math for college or career plans.

But Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants all students to take four years of math in high school, he said in a speech. Young people need to learn how to manage their finances and prepare for a workforce "where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job."

Most U.S. students are required to take three or four years of high school math, notes Sarah Schwartz in Education Week. Is more math better?

Only 24 percent of 12th-graders tested as proficient or advanced in 2019, the most recent round of National Assessment of Educational Progress testing for their age group. Thirty-five percent were at the "basic" level. For the 40 percent who were "below basic," 81 percent had taken Algebra II/trig, pre-calculus or calculus. I fear these students were in required courses with college-prep labels, but very simplified content. Their teachers are under pressure to pass everyone along.

U.K students take a series of high-stakes national tests, including math, halfway through high school. They can retake a subject they don't pass.

The next step is to take "A-level" courses and exams -- but only in the subjects they want to pursue. In the U.K., Schwartz explains, students apply to college to study a specific subject. A would-be literature student doesn't need advanced math. Since students start in their major, a bachelor's degree takes three years.

Testing for basic competency and then letting students pick their pathway makes sense to me. Perhaps students on the low-math path would have time for a financial literacy or statistics-for-citizens course.

When I was in high school, I told my math teacher I'd be happy to sign a contract pledging to never take any college course that required trigonometry. He laughed. I was serious. And it was a pledge I could have kept. I went on to major in English and Creative Writing.

Of course, Americans believe in second, third, fourth and fifth chances. The student who can't find the lowest common denominator if it had a flashing neon sign is told he can be an engineer or an astronaut (or a crypto-currency accountant?) some day. Watch out for flying pigs.

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