December 03, 2009

After a report found that just 15 percent of Maryland students are prepared to take college-level math courses when they arrive on campus, the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents is considering a proposal to tighten admissions standards by requiring students applying to state universities to take four years of math in high school. What's good about the approach being considered by the university system is that it isn't pushing for students to take more advanced mathematics before getting to college but, instead, to take more years of math and to take a math class during their senior year of high school.

As a state increasingly dependent on high-tech jobs in medicine, biotechnology and related industries, Maryland has a huge stake in raising academic standards in its secondary schools. That's the only way to produce graduates who can compete in a global, knowledge-based economy. But presently, the state only requires three years of high school math for graduation. Moreover, many students skip math during their senior year, causing a hiatus in their studies that too often leads to a decline in proficiency when they take up the subject again on the college level.

The university system's new math requirements are being developed in cooperation with the Maryland State Department of Education and would go into effect for ninth-graders in 2011. Their joint initiative mirrors efforts around the country to raise standards in high school mathematics, which is considered essential if the state is to produce more math and science professionals, all of whom depend on highly developed analytical reasoning skills.

An unfortunate consequence of the emphasis on math is that students are already being pushed to take more and more advanced math courses earlier and earlier in their academic careers. It's not uncommon for the most gifted students to take Algebra I as early as the seventh grade and to take a first-level calculus course in the 11th grade.

But while some kids can master difficult concepts of higher mathematics at an early age, not every student can benefit from such accelerated programs. Many well-motivated students need more time for their cognitive skills to develop, and for them it makes sense to take a more modest math program over the entire four-year course of their high school careers. That allows them not only to familiarize themselves with the subject in greater depth but also to retain more of what they learn.

The same goes for their non-college-bound classmates planning occupations that require some knowledge of math concepts and applications. Taking a full four years of math may leave both types of student better prepared for school or work than either the present three-year requirement or an accelerated track that risks letting those hard-earned skills slip away through disuse in their final year of high school.

Readers respond

Yes, high school students should be required to take four years of math regardless of what level they achieve. If teenagers take a year off from any academic curriculum, they will forget a lot of it because of the simple fact that they are learning the material. They are not masters of it just because they may earn an A in a course; they are still learning. If you don't stay current with something you are learning, you will forget it regardless of how well you do in a course or what level you achieve.

Larry Wilson

I took two years of high school calculus, yet I was still unprepared when I got to college. Why? I wasn't sufficiently challenged in high school. Stressing good study habits, lots of opportunities to practice, practice, practice, and being able to demonstrate how you arrived at an answer (both on paper and in front of the class) is just as important as knowing the right answer.

Joe Cooler