New State Law Raises Math Bar

Sep 11, 2012

Beginning this year, high school seniors in Arizona will have to clear another hurdle before winning their diplomas.

A new state law requires students to take four credits of math.

It’s part of a nationwide push to prepare American students for more technical jobs in the global economy.

In Cindy Hester’s geometry class at Flagstaff High School, students huddle around their desks studying angles.

“Okay, now, I want you, according to what we’ve done here, to come up with a definition of adjacent angles," she instructs the class. "What’s gotta be true? You come up with it with your partners.”

Hester and other math teachers in Arizona are on the front lines of a new state law.

High school students are now required to take four math courses to graduate, instead of three.

And Hester says that’s up from just two only a few years ago.

“In the other states where I’ve taught, it’s been four years for a long time. So this is going to put us on par with other states. And that’s who these students are competing against, for jobs and going to college,” she says.

They also are competing against students in other countries, who score far higher on math and science tests than Americans.

The Obama administration has pushed states to raise math and science standards.

President Obama even spoke about it at last week’s Democratic Convention.

He said, “Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers within 10 years.”

The Obama Administration has launched a nationwide science, technology, engineering and math initiative, called STEM.

Cindy Hester welcomes the push.

“A lot of the careers that were available with just arithmetic skills are no longer there,” she says.  “And we have no idea what jobs are going to be out there in the future.”

But implementing the new math rules hasn’t been easy, especially with short time frames and declining budgets.

Sharon Falor is the assistant principal for curriculum at Flagstaff High.

She says the state didn’t give districts enough time to prepare for the mandate.

And that’s made it hard on students who were unprepared when they came to high school.

“It created this backlog of students who were not going to be successful because the game changed on them in high school,” Falor says.

The district’s new high school schedule, which offers fewer classes, has compounded the challenge.  

Now that students are required to take four years of math, Falor says they can’t take as many electives.

“It reduces the number of opportunities kids have to explore things in the fine arts. We offer woods, welding, automotive. We offer classes in business, web design, fashion and merchandising,” she says. “And students aren’t able to explore those areas as frequently as they could in the past.”

Math teacher Jeff Koch worries that the new schedule makes it difficult for students to retake a math class if they fail.

“I think it could hurt many of the students, putting that much stress on them in the math realm,” he says. “There are some students that just are not mathematically inclined.” 

That’s why Flag High is offering two classes for students who may not be able to succeed in advanced math. 

The first reinforces geometry and Algebra I and prepares students for Algebra II.

The second teaches students real-world applications for math.

“It will talk about financing homes, cars, what re-fis are all about, what selling a house on a short sale would be about,” Falor says. “And it goes all the way from there to college loans. What will that cost you over 30 years?”

That class sounds good to sophomore Sam Reeves.

He says he likes geometry, but he struggles with algebra.

If given the choice, Reeves says he would prefer “a class that actually relates to something you’d be doing, like mortgaging a house.”

Falor says from here on out, Flagstaff middle schools will start preparing students by giving them a better foundation.

But she says the district needs to find more qualified math teachers, especially with dwindling dollars.

Back in Cindy Hester’s class, sophomore Sam Horton says he understands the stakes have changed when it comes to math.

He’s not excited about it, but…

“It’s doable,” he says.  “I think I’ll do all right if I study hard.”