Math Tracks in School, And Optimizing Student Success

Hayoon Song

In 2021, high school students in the United States were declared third place in math and science competitions. However, in a recent international exam, the US ranked 31st out of the 79 countries that participated. So, what was the reason behind such a big difference in performance?

Many researchers believe that the teaching methods are at fault. They say that the excessive focus on formulas rather than problem-solving is what hinders students from doing well in tests, where the questions require thinking rather than memorization. According to Professor Po-Shen at Carnegie Mellon, “math is a language that builds upon itself, and not understanding the foundations of math is like not understanding the roots and structure of a language.” Instead of having to memorize everything about a certain topic, students should be taught to understand it fully before moving on to the next. If students skip over important concepts, only focusing on the formulas, they will have no information to support them later on.

Every year, many students “jump ahead” in math; some take Integrated Math 1 in 8th grade, and others skip more grades. This separates students into “tracks.” And though there are students that succeed in their tracks, there are others who struggle. In the past few years, California math guidelines were on the verge of changing to get rid of the tracks in the system. This would combine the students in different tracks, and supporters of this change claimed that this would help both high-achieving students and low-achieving students. Low-achieving students would get help from classmates, and high-achieving students would strengthen their understanding of certain topics by teaching their peers. A similar logic was used to support group projects.

However, there were many oppositions to this new idea, mainly from parents who worried their children would not be able to thrive in their new classes. They believed students with a solid understanding of prior classes wouldn’t be challenged enough and would be held back by their peers. “Don’t put down the other kids who are really hard-working,” said one parent in an interview with The Washington Post. 

So, how should math education be improved so that all students are able to thrive? The high-achieving students in schools brought the US up to third place in worldwide math and science competitions. But in order to do well in international exams that many students in high schools all over the country participate in, a new solution must be offered – for the math education of all students.

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