After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

Community college means a return to middle school for many students, writes Kenneth Terrell in The Atlantic, citing a recent National Center on Education and the Economy report on college and career readiness. “A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc Tucker, president of the NCEE.

NCEE randomly selected one community college in each of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/electrical technology, business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology/computer programming, nursing, and the general education track. NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English skills truly were necessary to succeed.

While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–“arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.

Raising admission standards would exclude most would-be community college students. And for what purpose?  Only a few “will ever need to use advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring advanced algebra to requiring Latin. “It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.

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My son is repeating middle school math in community college. He could not concentrate well enough until recently on math (ADHD). The good news is that the frontal cortex has finally developed enough that he can focus and he is finally getting it. It would not have been useful to hold him back in high school until he got the math – he was not ready to get the math. He did fine in his other subjects and is taking college level English etc at the community college. It is possible that he maybe should have spent high school studying middle school math rather than limping through Algebra and Geometry without really learning it. But he is far better off being at a community college than staying another year in high school just to complete a math requirement.


Therese, I saw you comment about your son and had to weigh in before even reading the article bc I have a similar background only now I’m an engineer so I’m doing mathematics all day long. Obviously it makes no sense to hold anyone back bc they don’t pass a high school math class – it’s just learning the formal names for everyday problem solving. It’s definitely not your son’s fault for not grasping math in high school. Everyone teaches math in reverse. Math is suppose to be a tool that helps you understand and communicate a pattern that’s tied to an actual, real life problem you’re ultimately trying to solve. Without that real life problem, math is useless. And learning to formally communicate the pattern to a problem that doesn’t exist is even more useless. There is nothing wrong with your son. As a matter of fact…the pace was probably far to slow and your son got confused by the simplicity. I know this bc I’ve taught undergrads for a few years that match your son’s description and as soon as I shifted the focus away from the formal problem and onto a complex real world example…the students excelled. There is a silver lining for your son and the rest if these students – they understand how to tackle incredibly difficult problems later on in life.

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