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Algebra, Geometry Courses Show Little 'Truth-in-Labeling,' Study Finds

You might imagine that taking an Honors Algebra I course would be good preparation on the pathway to college. But a new study suggests the title could be misleading.

In fact, more high school graduates who took a class labeled "regular" algebra by their school received a curriculum ranked as rigorous in a new study from the National Center for Education Statistics.

"We found that there is very little truth-in-labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses," said Jack Buckley, the NCES commissioner of the NCES.

My colleague Sarah D. Sparks explains the findings in a new Education Week story on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress High School Transcript Study.

Here, I'll just briefly highlight a few things from the study on algebra and geometry. First, only 18 percent of students who completed a course their school identified as Honors Algebra I actually experienced a curriculum classified as "rigorous" by the researchers. This compares with 34 percent of those who completed a regular Algebra I course. Meanwhile, about one-third of students who took an Honors Geometry course in high school received a rigorous curriculum.

The study examined textbooks from the courses to determine whether they merited a ranking of beginner, intermediate, or rigorous. The data was gathered as part of the 2005 NAEP in math. The researchers collected transcript data from 17,800 students, and examined 120 textbooks in Algebra I, geometry, and integrated math used at 550 public schools.

As Sarah explains in her story, the study also shows that students who took classes that covered more rigorous topics in algebra and geometry scored significantly higher on the NAEP exam than those who studied beginner topics, regardless of the course title.

Again, you should check out Sarah's story (and the actual NAEP report, of course) for more details on the research and its methodology. But I wanted to share one important caveat from the EdWeek story, as noted by J. Michael Shaughnessy, a math professor at Portland State University, in Oregon, and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Shaughnessy cautions that the study's focus on textbooks limits how much we can say with confidence about these courses. As he explained, "It's all based on the textbook analysis and the type of questions being asked," he said. There were no questions about how the teachers were using the textbooks, he said, whether they used supplemental materials, and what other strategies they employed to teach the topics at hand.

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