Friday, February 15, 2019

Critical Math for the ACT


I recently went to a workshop on Critical Math for the ACT at the Wisconsin Math Institute.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I had been told that there is a lot of middle school
math on the ACT, so it seemed like I should know more about it.  I was really quite
surprised by the information and it got me thinking, not only about the foundation for
the ACT, but about acceleration practices.  This blog is really a place for me to try to
process all that I learned.


I did not know that the ACT has created its own College and Career ready standards.  

ACT College and Career Ready Standards to view online for most up to date version

PDF version Feb2019 - I like the layout of this one better but could become out of date



For a benchmark score of 22, most of the standards align with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade math.  

There are still many up to a score of 27 and some for scores higher.  

So it turns out the critical math for the ACT is middle school math. Middle school math is foundational.  Not just learning it, but retaining it.  That is an issue of focus, coherence, and rigor, but that is a different blog.



The ACT® Test User Handbook for Educators Online Link, PDF lays out the
Content Covered by the Mathematics Test (p. 46)
Preparing for Higher Mathematics (57–60%)
This category covers the more recent mathematics that students are learning, starting when they began using algebra as a general way of expressing and solving equations.
Integrating Essential Skills (40–43%)
This category focuses on measuring how well you can synthesize and apply your understandings and skills to solve more complex problems. The questions ask you to address concepts such as rates and percentages; proportional relationships; area, surface area, and volume; average and median; and expressing numbers in different ways. Solve non-routine
problems that involve combining skills in chains of steps; applying skills in varied contexts; understanding connections; and demonstrating fluency

This means that approximately 40% of the test requires the application of concepts learned prior to 8th grade.  


Achieve the Core did independent research found here. They found:

In mathematics, fewer than half of items on the assessment were judged to be aligned to the claimed Common Core mathematical content standards for high school.

Clearly there is far more value in middle level math than most people realize. We are not just laying the foundation for higher level math, we are the core. (If someone has a better word choice to offer I would appreciate it.  I struggled to come up with the right words.) The ACT can be a gatekeeper to higher education. In middle school, with preadolescent hormones running rampant, many students don’t see the point of school.  They figure they can pull it together when it is important, you know, high school. I think all the above information speaks to why middle school math is important and why teaching it in a way the promotes conceptual understanding and sense making is key.  


But what about the high students?  The students who skip a year of math or work at
an accelerated pace?  When students are accelerated they have less time exploring
these core concepts and therefore do not have as deep an understanding as they could.
 And what is the trade off? Supposedly they get to high math in high school. Depending
on the options in high school this may or may not be the case.  It is quite possible for a
student to take Algebra freshman year and with the right plan, get to AP Calculus senior
year. It seems to be the mindset of parents and students that the higher you get in
math the better.  I’m not sure if that is true.
MAA/NCTM Position

Although calculus can play an important role in secondary school, the ultimate goal of the K–12 mathematics curriculum should not be to get students into and through a course in calculus by twelfth grade but to have established the mathematical foundation that will enable students to pursue whatever course of study interests them when they get to college. The college curriculum should offer students an experience that is new and engaging, broadening their understanding of the world of mathematics while strengthening their mastery of tools that they will need if they choose to pursue a mathematically intensive discipline.

Digging deeper in the background information on the statement it states:

...the pump that is pushing more students into more advanced mathematics ever earlier is not just ineffective: It is counter-productive. Too many students are moving too fast through preliminary courses so that they can get calculus onto their high school transcripts. The result is that even if they are able to pass high school calculus, they have established an inadequate foundation on which to build the mathematical knowledge required for a STEM career. Nothing demonstrates this more eloquently than the fact that from the high school class of 1992, one-third of those who took calculus in high school then enrolled in precalculus when they got to college, 8 and from the high school class of 2004, one in six of those who passed calculus in high school then took remedial mathematics in college.



Within our schools, there is tremendous pressure to fill these classes, accelerating every student who might conceivably be ready for calculus by the senior year regardless of whether such a student might benefit from a slower and more thorough introduction to the traditional topics of high school mathematics.



It makes me wonder if we are we taking time to consider the individual? Do we provide opportunities for parents to discuss this so they can help make the decision for their child?  I’m not talking about the parents who are obsessively asking that their child be accelerated. I feel confident that those conversations are happening, but what about the parents who simply put their child in an accelerated course because the student met the school’s requirements.  As someone who dropped out of a middle school accelerated program my mother never wanted me in, I feel strongly that there are so many factors the school does not know. And the research around retaking and remediation shows that an experience like mine can alter career plans. We need to reach out to parents to help equip them to better make the decision with their child.  



Should we support acceleration? This question, like many questions in mathematics education, does not have a binary answer. The answer is “it depends.” Sometimes acceleration is appropriate and sometimes it isn’t. What does the answer depend on? Here the answer is clearer: it depends on the student’s demonstrated significant depth of understanding of all the content that would be skipped. If a student demonstrates significant depth of understanding of some but not all the content that would be skipped, then this is more appropriately an opportunity for enrichment rather than acceleration.

There is evidence that students who speed through content without developing depth of understanding are the very ones who tend to drop out of mathematics when they have the chance (Boaler, 2016).  Acceleration potentially decreases student access to STEM careers if it results in students dropping mathematics as quickly as possible, rather than cultivating and developing the joy of doing and understanding mathematics. This is important to point out to parents, as dropping out of mathematics is clearly not an outcome parents want to encourage.



I honestly could have copied and pasted the whole article.  It is fabulous and you should click the link and read the whole thing.  

My goals coming out of this workshop:

  • Create a parent communication night for students who selected for our compacted Math ⅞ course to help them better understand their options.  
  • Analyze our districts data to see which content students are not retaining and evaluate our instructional strategies to see if there are shifts we need to make to better build conceptual understanding so students retain and can apply these skills.  
  • Have vertical conversations with the high school.  The middle school teachers cannot be solely responsible for these standards that students are expected to apply on a high stakes test their junior year of high school.  We need to look at when skills are introduced and when we expect proficiency. ACT provides this helpful tool that I am hoping will focus these discussions.  


I’d love to hear about work you are doing in your district around this topic or if you have articles or links to share.  Please use the comment section below.


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