July 15, 2009

A generation ago, educators were pointing with alarm to the fact that Johnny couldn't read. Today the alarm is just as likely to be over the fact that Johnny can't do algebra, either. A study by the Abell Foundation reported that nearly half of Maryland high school graduates need remedial courses in math once they go to college because they haven't mastered the essential skills in high school. And it's not just algebra they're having trouble with. Professors say they're getting students ill prepared to handle even the most elementary math, including basic arithmetic.

Part of the problem appears to be that the standards set by the state for student achievement in math are too low. As a result, instructors don't teach the full range of skills needed to master a subject such as Algebra I, for example. Instead, they teach only enough to enable students to pass the state High School Assessment exams required for graduation. State education officials say the math portion of the exam wasn't designed to ensure students were prepared for college-level math but only to show they had the minimum competence in the subject to get a diploma. But veteran educators say that because teachers spend so much time on the skills needed to pass the test, not those necessary to advance to higher-level math, students who go on to Algebra II and beyond in high school must play catch-up.

No wonder so many students arrive in college in need of remedial instruction. Maryland has spent years establishing standards for Maryland high school graduates, but if those standards don't actually prepare students for college, what good are they? The whole point of developing the standards was supposed to be the creation of an educated work force able to compete in a global marketplace. In today's economy, that almost always means at least some form of post-secondary school education or training. But the Abell report found that Maryland high school graduates were having trouble with the math requirements even at the community college level, let alone at four-year institutions.

Yet the state education department insists that there's nothing wrong with its standards and no need to change them to raise student achievement in math. This, at a time when states across the country are trying to raise standards and revamp the way math is taught. Maryland, in fact, is one of 46 states that have agreed to support development of national standards geared to a common curriculum and testing in the core subjects of reading and math. It's hard to see how that squares with a belief that the current math standards are adequate.

Maryland officials say there's no need to make changes until other states raise their standards, and their response to the report has been fixated on the question of whether Algebra I should be considered a college-prep class. That misses the point. The current standards may be intended to reflect baseline skills, and the state may one day adopt tougher national standards. But that doesn't change the fact that nearly half of Maryland high school students have to take remedial math when they get to college. The state needs to figure out why, and it needs to fix it.