Is Algebra II the Answer?

By Patte Barth

Not too long ago, few Americans thought that high schools should prepare every student for college. That was before technology, a globalized marketplace, and the vagaries of the present economy changed the rules for preparing for life after high school. Two-thirds of jobs for new graduates will require at least some postsecondary education and training.

For a millennial worried about getting a job, college also is a good hedge against unemployment and lower wages. But even if new graduates choose not to continue their education right away, their chances for landing a good job with decent pay and benefits are greatly improved if they have high-level knowledge and skills, especially in math and science.

For these reasons, business leaders, educators, and policymakers have pushed a college- and career-ready agenda that opens courses previously reserved for the college-bound to all students. And of all high school courses, high-level math seems to have the most powerful relationship to future success in college and the job market, as the Center for Public Education (CPE) shows in our 2009 report.

Over the last decade, Algebra II has become the proxy math for both college- and career-readiness. By 2012, Algebra II was a graduation requirement in 19 states. The more than 40 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards also have bought into an expectation that all students will learn substantial Algebra II content alongside other major math strands.

But the Algebra II trend is showing signs of reversing. Texas and Florida both recently walked back their requirement that students pass this course in order to earn a standard diploma.

Given these developments, this is a good time for school leaders to reconsider what they want a standard diploma to mean for their graduates and the role high-level math, in particular Algebra II, should play.

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