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Accelerated math: Is it really a good idea?

Many students in middle school are testing into higher levels of math than their peers. Is it smart to advance your student, or keep her at her grade level until she really masters the material?

We sought advice about middle school math placement and how you can make the best decision for your child.

Elementary school math instruction is focused on learning grade level skills and meeting mandated standards. For students who are capable of doing more difficult math work, teachers may add enrichment activities either during class or after school. By the time middle school arrives, a wider gap in math skills has started to form.

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Moving on up

Middle school math instruction is more ability-based, and students are tested to see which course they are best suited for. Students who score above a certain percentile may be placed directly into a pre-algebra course rather than continuing to build grade-level skills. For advanced or gifted students, there is also a push from parents to keep their students challenged and moving through the material at a faster pace.

“Some students can handle the algebra in seventh grade, although it is typically a ‘watered-down’ version of pre-algebra which usually encompasses sixth to eighth grades,” says Jennifer Little, Ph.D. and math teacher for over 30 years. “This is an attempt to get students ready for algebra I — [but] the failure rates are high. Earlier starts at a slower pace have been substituted to try to improve the failure rates, with little success,” she adds. “Even so, many students will need to revisit algebra I in ninth grade.”

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Ability or anxiety?

Is there really such a discrepancy in math ability, or is something else at work? Many students develop the attitude that math is too difficult or that they will never use math outside of school.

Laura Laing is a former high school math teacher and the author of Math for Grownups. “Studies have shown that by the time students get to middle school, they have a very jaded view of mathematics, believing that they are either good at math or don’t have the ability to understand the concepts,” says Laing. “Some have severe math anxiety that prevents them from moving forward in their math education. I think this phenomenon is one reason that students cannot easily grasp the concepts behind higher level math courses — or at least feel up to the challenge.”

College conundrum

For students who are planning on attending college, there is also the issue of admission requirements. Many colleges are requiring at least three years of high school math, with four being preferable when applying for science and engineering related fields. For students who have accelerated their math courses in middle school, this may mean taking college-level AP calculus in high school. While some students are perfectly capable of handling this high level of math instruction in high school, some may be better prepared to take it in college.

Bottom line

All students should be properly challenged at school and allowed to work at a higher level if deemed necessary. Parents and teachers should consider each student’s situation individually to determine if accelerating math classes will benefit them.

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