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RETHINKING COLLEGE READINESS IN MATH: Report Identifies Effective Programs for Preparing Students

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“With high expectations for all students, opportunities for teachers to deepen their content knowledge, and continuous follow-up and support for students every step of the way, the three schools featured in this report serve as models to other communities struggling to deliver an effective math curriculum.”

A new report by WestEd highlights three high schools—all supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—that have successfully implemented programs to prepare all of their students for college mathematics. The report, titled Rethinking High Schools: Supporting All Students to be College-Ready in Math, is the latest in the organization’s “Rethinking High School” series of reports on secondary school reform and redesign.

“High schools across America face many of the same obstacles in helping students succeed in math,” said Tracy Huebner, senior researcher at WestEd and the lead author of the “Rethinking High School” series. “With high expectations for all students, opportunities for teachers to deepen their content knowledge, and continuous follow-up and support for students every step of the way, the three schools featured in this report serve as models to other communities struggling to deliver an effective math curriculum.”

According to the report, there are several barriers to ensuring that all students are college-ready in math. For one, it finds that many students start high school unprepared for college preparatory math and require intensive remediation that is not always available. On the other hand, some students who are ready for the course work may not have access to it. For example, the report notes that whereas just 44 percent of high schools in high-poverty areas offer calculus, 72 percent of schools serving the most affluent students do so. In addition, it notes that even when challenging math courses are available, not all students are aware of which ones are required for college admission. Furthermore, because state requirements are not always aligned with college expectations, some students may meet their state’s graduation requirements yet still not have met the requirement for college admission. To earn a high school diploma in California, says the report, students have to take two years of high school math. But to gain admission to the California State University or University of California systems, students have to take at least three years of math.

WestEd identifies three elements that should be part of any strong math program: high-level math courses and supports, continual improvement of teachers’ skills and math content knowledge, and use of student information to drive instruction. By using programs that incorporate these elements, all three schools featured—Interlake High School in Bellevue, WA; Granby High School in Norfolk, VA; and Fenway High School in Boston—have posted gains in advanced course taking, SAT scores, and/or state assessment scores.

At Interlake, all students are encouraged to take advanced math, regardless of their academic history. In addition, the school eliminated its lowest-level math offerings, and despite concerns that a number of students would not fare well with this change, Interlake’s Class of 2007 had an average math SAT score of 500, nineteen points higher than the state average and thirty-two points higher than the national average.

In Norfolk, the school district decided to focus more on professional development. Granby High School, however, went above and beyond the school district’s requirements and worked to institute “a culture of ongoing learning and support” among its teachers. School leaders consider this factor a key to Granby’s success; more than 90 percent of all students at this majority-minority school passed the Virginia Standards of Learning exam in Algebra II in the 2006–07 school year, compared to about 30 percent in 1997–98.

Fenway, a school for at-risk students that became what Boston Public Schools calls a “pilot” (a smaller school at which new approaches to teaching and learning are tested), works to develop students’ deep understanding of math. There, students discuss with teachers their comprehension of math concepts as well as areas in which they are struggling. As the report points out, these conversations serve as a type of formative assessment and are tied to the school’s belief that “a student’s ability to communicate mathematical understanding to others is considered equally important” to test and quiz scores. Students also keep portfolios for each unit, in which they include their best math work and a two- to four-page summary on their understanding of certain skills. As a result of the program, more than two thirds of students scored in the top two categories on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System in 2007, a significant improvement from 2004, when barely one third did so.

Full report.

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