December 01, 2009|By Childs Walker | childs.walker@baltsun.com

Students applying to state universities would have to take a fourth math course and take math during their senior year of high school under revised requirements to be considered this week by the university system's Board of Regents.

Math skills atrophy in students who don't take a course their senior year, and those students are more likely to need costly remediation in college, said Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a strong proponent of the tougher application requirements.

"Math is not a spectator sport," said Kirwan, a one-time math professor. "If you get away from it for a year, you lose a lot. The research is pretty clear and consistent that it makes a difference to have math your senior year."

The new requirements would ask students to complete Algebra II and if they do so before senior year, to take another course at least as difficult. The changes, crafted in collaboration with the Maryland State Department of Education, would go into effect for students beginning ninth grade in 2011.

The requirements would align with a national trend toward toughening math standards, part of a larger quest to produce more science, technology, math and engineering, or STEM, professionals. The National Governors Association is leading an effort to develop core standards for high schools across the nation and those standards might include similar math requirements.

"This is very consistent with what's happening nationally," Kirwan said. "Math turns out to be a huge hurdle for students considering STEM careers, so we hope the greater continuity can help to address that. So much depends on analytical reasoning and mathematical reasoning these days."

It's not clear how many students would be affected by the proposed changes. It's common for strong students to take pre-calculus as sophomores and AB calculus as juniors. But those who do not wish to major in math or science in college sometimes eschew BC calculus or AP statistics as seniors. It's unclear whether high schools might realign their math tracks so more of these students would not take calculus until senior year or push more students to take statistics as seniors.

Pat Baltzley, director of pre-K-to-12 mathematics for Baltimore County, said counselors already encourage students to take math as seniors, though she acknowledged that many do not.

"We're in a very good position to deal with what the University of Maryland would require," she said.

Excellent math students already tend to take statistics or calculus as seniors, she said. For seniors with no appetite for calculus, the county offers a course, developed with the Community College of Baltimore County, called college-readiness mathematics.

Baltzley said the county won't seriously discuss modifying its program until the new requirements are finalized.

But outside experts predicted that the policy shift would have an impact on local high schools.

"I think it will force countywide decision-making about the sequence of courses," said Skip Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "But I think kids should be taking four years of math. If you don't use it, you lose it, so it makes sense to keep them engaged and also puts math on par with English."

He said it's obvious when dealing with college students which ones did not take math as seniors. "I'd like to think that if we see school districts move beyond a three-year commitment to math, we'll see more seamless transitions to higher education," he said.

Steve Wilson, a math professor at the Johns Hopkins University who has served on many panels analyzing math standards, said the requirements would be a step in the right direction but added that as long as state assessments focus on data analysis instead of the skills students need for college math, many freshmen will show up unprepared.

"They're forcing faculty to focus on a path that's not preparing students for college," he said.