As I was reading, I was thinking about the chapter on equity in math in Jo Boaler's book Mathematical Mindsets. My mind is spinning. As I read the story of Geoff's daughter, I kept thinking about the ideas around tracking and testing that Jo addressed in her book and how that impacts who considers themselves as mathematicians, who is given the message they can do math and who is given the message they aren't good at math.
Unfortunately, I too, have had similar experiences to Geoff's.
Background information: The University of Wisconsin system has a math placement test that all students must take as they enter any UW system school (all 2 and 4 year schools). This placement determines their entry into college level math courses, and ultimately, determines who gets in to math/STEM related fields.
In the advising role for the secondary math education program, I was working with a student last year who expressed interest in becoming a high school math teacher. He happens to be from Illinois and came to UW Oshkosh for his schooling (out of state). I met the student after reaching out to students who had indicated an interest in the secondary education math program (becoming a high school math teacher). He contacted me with concerns about the math class that he was in and he started to realize that not being in the calculus sequence was going to add at least a year to his college program.
He explained that when he came up to register, he was told he had to take the math placement test (as all students do). The placement test is only given on campus. The student was finishing taking Calculus I at his school (got an A-) and figured he didn't need to study, that surely he would be allowed to sign up for Calc I at the college level. Long story short, he didn't do all that well on the placement test. He wasn't aware of the ramifications and wasn't about to make an additional trip to retake the test. The consequence: He was placed in to a BASIC college algebra course.
My son graduated from high school just over a year ago. Since he was in middle school, his goal has been to become a pilot. He wanted to fly. During his junior year, we found a flight program for him at a local technical college that was his number one choice. During his senior year of high school, he decided to begin taking college level courses at the technical college under course options in order to get a jump start on the program. He took mostly general education courses such as communications and math. He had taken high school math courses through precalculus (in his junior year) and always done well. However, the technical college required what they call tech math for all aviation students, so he took that class at the tech school his senior year. His words.... "this is super easy".
A bit more information to round out his background.... with no studying to speak of, he received a score of 30 on the math portion of the ACT. The classes he took at the local high school included band (he had always enjoyed music) and AP Physics. Yep, a true physics geek.
As many college students do, he found that aviation wasn't the career he wanted. His second career choice, "mom, I want to be a physics teacher." Honestly, I was thrilled. There is such a lack of physics teachers and I've seen him work on physics. He loves it. He has such a great way of explaining it. Watching Interstellar with him explaining all the physics of different dimensions was telling.
As he began enrolling for courses at the 2 year college in order to get started on this new path, the advisor at the school suggested he take introductory college algebra because that was the next class in the sequence after tech math. When I saw he was enrolled it that, I was enraged. Why would I pay tuition for that class? I work in the field. I know to be a physics teacher, you need 3 semester of calculus, linear algebra and a few other higher level math classes. On this road, he would have to complete two years of college Algebra before even attempting Calculus. I suggested he call the college back and ask to be enrolled in Calculus I so that he could begin preparing for his future career as a physics teacher. That would be worth paying for.
You have to take the placement test. (And if you don't do well because you haven't had math for a year, too bad. We already know you won't succeed in Calculus.)
A student with a 3.0 in all other college level classes? One that has a private pilots license, an ACT in math of 30, a history of success in all high school math classes, success in AP Physics. You need more evidence than that?
Why are we shutting students out of upper level math? Why not let these students try? These are students who have taken challenging courses in high school and succeeded. If they take Calculus and fail are they any further behind than paying for a bunch of classes they really don't need?
As Jo Boaler explains,
"The fault lies with our culture, which has favored a role for mathematics as a sorting mechanism and an indicator of who is gifted. There is an imperative need for mathematics to change from an elitist, performance based subject used to rank and sort students (and teachers) to an open, learning subject, for both high-achieving students, who are currently turning away from mathematics in record numbers, as well as the low- achieving students who are being denied access to ideas that they are fully capable of learning." (Boaler, 2015)