FOR more than a decade, the annual release of scores on the ACT exam has been promptly followed by calls for a more rigorous curriculum. Specifically, this newspaper and many policymakers have called for a four-year math requirement for all Oklahoma high school students.
The call was echoed again last week with yet another year of results showing Oklahoma students still lag the nation in math achievement based on ACT results. Science is getting renewed attention, too, because that was the area where Oklahoma students appear to be lagging the most based on the scores.
We still believe four years of math would be of tremendous benefit for most students in preparing them for college and the workforce. Oklahoma students who took four years of math did considerably better on the math portion of the ACT than their peers. But considering the large number of Oklahoma students who graduate from high school and still need remedial math instruction in college, a four-year math requirement isn't the only issue.
This brings us to a portion of the ACT report that caught our attention: “ACT research shows that younger students who take a rigorous curricula are more prepared to graduate from high school ready for college or career.” The report references an earlier finding that student achievement by eighth grade “has a larger impact on their college and career readiness by the time they graduate high school than anything that happens academically in high school.”
While high school graduation requirements and the rigor of high school courses are important factors, so too is the academic foundation of students entering high school. The foundation, it appears, has some critical weaknesses.
ACT's report on Oklahoma specifically advises that “getting more students ready for algebra before ninth grade will increase the chances that students will be prepared for and take advanced-level math courses.”
Efforts over the last decade to bring math achievement up have resulted in some improvements in the ACT math score. The state's academic standards in math have gotten high praise but officials must continue to search for efforts in teacher preparation and classroom practice, particularly in the early and middle years, that will further close the gap.
Science has had less attention, and it shows. Earlier this year, the state's science standards were blasted as “almost complete uselessness.” Education officials promised to take a fresh look at the standards. We hope that's a work in progress.
Educators (and many parents) would point out science education is taking a back seat to reading and math thanks at least in part to testing. Combine that with weak standards, and the challenge is clear.
Just last week, a speaker at the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber's State of the Schools event pointed out Oklahoma is behind the curve in educating its citizens for the growing knowledge economy. Education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is critical to catching up, yet science and math are our state's biggest academic struggles.
We're all for making sure high school students are taking courses that will help them be successful adults and that the content of the courses is where it should be. But the foundation our students need to prepare them for success in high school and increasingly math- and science-oriented economy needs repair.