The Perils of Higher School Math Standards - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Perils of Higher School Math Standards

The Perils of Higher School Math Standards

By Anne Miller



Because there’s a big gap between increased math requirements and actually getting the kids to reach them. 

By Anne Miller

Could higher standards for STEM in American schools be unexpectedly bad news?

American school systems could use a boost — U.S. students rank below average on math skills when compared to other nations, and we’re falling, not getting better, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment

A new study finds that for all the good intentions of upping high school requirements in the U.S., there’s a very big downside. Kids may face increased requirements after years of schooling that aimed lower — so they aren’t prepped for the harder tasks. And some of them just give up. 

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis studied dropout rates across 44 states going back to 1990 and found that school districts that adopted more stringent math and science requirements saw the dropout rate rise from 8.6 percent to 11 percent.

Black male dropout rates increased by 2 percent. For Hispanic young men, the number was 2.5 percent. In some areas, with the most stringent new requirements, the black male student dropout rate hit as high as 23 percent. 

Even the small percentage changes mean big things when translated to real life, explains professor William Tate, a social scientist and one of the study’s authors.

“A 1 percent reduction in the national high school dropout rate would have resulted in 400 fewer murders and 8,000 fewer assaults,” he notes, citing a 2001 study. “A 1 percent reduction for all men ages 20 to 60 would save the United States as much as $1.4 billion per year in reduced costs from crime incurred by victims and society at large.”

So yeah, that tiny number could make a big difference. 

Anecdotally, history proves this conclusion. In Los Angeles a few years ago, educators pushed a program to increase the standards for high school graduation, but the backlash caused by concerns over potential increased dropouts proved so intense they dropped it before the program even began. 

Nationally, the No Child Left Behind Act signed in 2002 tests students to track their performance, and their schools’, ideally to allocated funds and resources where needed. But a study out just a few years later posited a link between testing and dropout rates as well — the testing alone was enough, much less increased requirements. 

The problem, according to the St. Louis experts, is that while tougher requirements sound well and good on paper, those new course loads aren’t backed by enough effort to bring students up to par. And it doesn’t take a professional mathematician to realize that for a lot of kids, that lack of support doesn’t add up.


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