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Contrary to popular belief, high school students have made significant academic progress in math over the last twenty years.

There are two ways to assess the progress of public education in this country: (i) how well students are educated now compared to their predecessors, (ii) and how American students perform in comparison to students in other countries.

If you take the time to parse through the data compiled by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), its hard not to come to the conclusion that the nation’s schools are putting more American students through the rigors of higher math than ever before.

A generation ago, students who were not college bound were overlooked in regards to higher math. In 1983, A Nation at Risk pegged the percentage of students completing intermediate algebra at 31 percent of high school graduates between 1976 and 1981.

By 1986 44 percent of high school students were taking intermediate algebra.

By 2004 that figure had risen to 69 percent. Significantly more students are taking higher levels of math than ever before.

First-year algebra Average Score % of All Students Level 250 Level 300 Level 350
1986 311 79% 35% 55% 8%
2004 310 94% 36% 55% 7%
1986 318 59% 23% 65% 11%
2004 314 83% 31% 60% 9%
Second-year algebra
1986 323 44% 16% 69% 14%
2004 317 69% 26% 63% 10%
Pre-calculus or calculus
1986 343 7% 7% 48% 44%
2004 336 18% 6% 66% 27%

This trend is making its way down further down the school system as well. The percentage of eighth-graders taking algebra has risen from 27 percent in 2000 to 42 percent in 2005.

The goal of having more students—ideally, all of them—take Algebra 1 in 8th grade dates at least as far back as the 1960s, and the idea gained popularity over the following two decades, math scholars say…Probably the biggest influence was the view that American schools were arbitrarily denying academic and economic opportunity to entire groups of students, by giving some the chance to take 8th grade algebra and relegating others to more basic math.

So, we can reasonably say that we are educating more of today’s American students in higher math than ever before. But can we say that they are learning the material?

Superficially, it appears as if overall scores have fallen between 1986 and 2004. A higher percentage of students who have taken intermediate algebra were performing at the lowest level (250) in 2004 than they were in 1986. In 1986, 16 percent of intermediate algebra students were performing at the 250 level. That has recently risen to 26 percent. An alarming rise at first glance.

Scores Are Rising

Because so many more students are taking intermediate algebra however a better comparison is to look at the percentage of all students that are performing at the 300 level or better. In 1986, 56 percent of students didn’t take intermediate algebra at all, and 16 percent of those that did performed at the 250 level. In 2004, 31 percent of students didn’t take intermediate algebra and 26 percent of those that did performed at the 250 level.

Thus, in 1986 63 percent of all students performed at the 250 level or below.

In 2004, only 49 percent of all students performed at the 250 level or below.

In other words, in 1986 27 percent of all 17 year-old high school students performed at the 300 level or better in intermediate algebra. By 2004 51 percent of 17 year-old students did.

I would call that substantial progress.

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