‘Honors’ math not always advanced

If your child’s school says she’s enrolled in “Honors Algebra,” here’s a bit of advice: Check the work she’s doing.

A new analysis of textbooks, curricula and transcripts of nearly 18,000 students nationwide suggests that millions of kids in so-called “honors” algebra and geometry classes are actually getting intermediate-level work – or worse.

“It’s a lot of kids that are obviously getting courses that are called one thing, but difficulty-wise look like they’re something else,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. There’s “little truth-in-labeling” for high school math courses, he said.

The agency’s analysis, released Tuesday, began as an attempt to solve a mystery: Researchers were trying to find out why more students were taking “advanced” classes in 2005 than in 1990, but weren’t turning in better results on nationally administered 12th-grade math and science tests.

Tuesday’s findings suggest that their course offerings were often “advanced” in name only: Fewer than one in five high school graduates who took an “honors” Algebra I class in high school got “rigorous” work in the course.

A full 73 percent got what researchers called “intermediate” level work, while 9 percent in honors classes got “beginner” level work. In fact, a greater proportion of students enrolled in regular algebra classes got advanced work, the study found – 34 percent vs. 18 percent in “honors” courses.

Results in geometry were similar, if less stark: Only one in three “honors” students got rigorous work.

The study has a few limitations, Buckley said. For one thing, researchers didn’t observe classes, so they don’t know exactly what material teachers covered.

Also, the sample comprises only about 80 percent of high school students, since 20 percent take algebra in middle school. He said results would likely be similar for those kids if researchers looked at their middle-school classes.

But the findings, extracted from 2005 school transcripts, would likely hold up now, Buckley said, since the courses “haven’t changed very much.”

Buckley cautioned against judging schools too harshly, saying the mislabeling is “almost certainly not an intentional thing.”

They’re likely not trying to puff up their academic reputations. Rather they’re relying on mislabeled textbooks and curriculums.

Parents, he said, should query school-board members or, in big districts, math committees, about how they make decisions about textbooks.

“The only way to do this is to pay attention,” he said.

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