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Are students helped or hindered by more math requirements in high school?

Georgia and other states intensified high school math requirements in the belief students would ultimately benefit. Now, that assumption is being questioned.

Texas, a pioneer in requiring algebra II in high school, has joined Florida in retracting the mandate.

About 60 percent of Georgia high school students who took the end-of-course test in coordinate algebra last spring failed to meet the state’s standard for content mastery. In analytic geometry, 65 percent failed to meet the standard.

Has the pendulum swung too far? Are we wrong to expect all students to master advanced math skills? Should we offer applied math classes that focus on the practical rather than the abstract?

Speaking at a panel last year, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, described a growing disconnect between our education system and our economy. Citing the fervor after the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report to overhaul our schools, Carnevale said, “We made great progress on that. It has been a good thing. We are at the point where it may be too much of a good thing.”

Carnevale said schools teach an increasingly abstract math curriculum under the premise all students ought to be prepared for Harvard. What’s missing today, he said, is “a more applied education, something that students can sell in the labor market.”

That was the rationale of Jobs for Texas, an industry coalition that told the Texas Board of Education algebra II was not as important as vocational training for many of the good jobs in the state for which a college degree wasn’t necessary.

Texas school district administrators agreed, contending, as one assistant superintendent did at a public hearing, “To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need.”

But do students need half of what they learn in high school?

How many high school graduates will ever draw on Miranda v. Arizona, atomic mass number or “The Canterbury Tales” in their daily lives?

We still teach landmark Supreme Court cases, chemistry and Chaucer to help students develop literacy and an understanding of how the world works.

We know the jobs entailing basic skills or repetitive tasks have all but disappeared, replaced by automation. What’s left are jobs that depend on critical thinking, problem-solving and the ability to work effectively with others — skills once expected of bosses and managers.

Georgia is now beginning a conversation about its single college prep diploma. The state Board of Education voted in 2007 to eliminate Georgia’s “tiered” diploma , in which there were different expectations for different students, especially those on the vo-tech track.

A few years earlier, a federal report confirmed many vo-tech students were getting a second-class education; only 29 percent of 12th grade vocational students scored “proficient” in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and only 9 percent were proficient in mathematics.

Georgia may have ended up with a high school curriculum that is more than some students need. However, we don’t want to return to one that is less than our students deserve.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.