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Algebra II for All?

To students grappling with logarithms, asymptotes, and imaginary numbers, Algebra II can seem a complex obstacle course with scant real-world value. But research indicates that of all of the classes offered in high school, it is the leading predictor of college and work success. That is why 20 states and the District of Columbia have raised graduation requirements to include Algebra II in recent years.

The Washington Post (4/3/11) examines this movement, asking whether learning Algebra II causes students to fare better in life, or whether it merely correlates with them doing better — because smart, motivated kids take Algebra II. There also is growing concern that Algebra II requirements may lead some young people to quit school. Among the critics is Anthony Carnevale, one of the authors of the Educational Testing Service study that revealed the link between work success and higher-level math. That study, which followed a group of students from eighth grade to when most were working, found that 84 percent of those in top jobs had taken Algebra II, compared with only half of those in the bottom tier.

Such worries have not deterred Arkansas, which began requiring Algebra II last year for most graduates and assesses how well students have done with a rigorous test — one of only two states to administer it. Only 13 percent of students who took the Algebra II test in Arkansas were deemed “prepared” or better, but state officials aim to raise that figure rather than lower the standard.

Image from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education’s college access program.

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