Math skills

1.  New secondary grads trail in math courses    ELIZABETH CHURCH Globe and Mail   February 13, 2008

A large percentage of Ontario high-school students arriving at community college do not have the math skills they need to succeed in technology and business programs, new research shows.

A study of the performance of more than 10,000 students enrolled in first-semester math courses at six Toronto-area community colleges found that one-third receive a D grade or worse – a showing that puts these students at high risk of dropping out.

"It's not pretty," said Laurel Schollen, dean of applied science and engineering technology at Toronto's Seneca College and director of the study.

Ms. Schollen, who has worked extensively in the college system, said educators for several years have talked anecdotally about students' struggle with math. This research, she says, provides clear evidence of the extent of that struggle.

The report also recommends several actions to try to improve the situation, including better information for high-school students about course selection, support for college students and more collaboration between colleges and high schools.

"This is not a finger-pointing exercise. For me, it is a way of looking at how are we doing and how could we do better."

Ms. Schollen said experience at her own school has shown that students in technology programs who do poorly in their first semester of math were unlikely to finish the program – a loss for the student and the college, as well as to the economy and the taxpayer. An earlier pilot study found more than 50 per cent of students with D grades or lower left their programs within a year.

This new, more ambitious report found that in regular college-level math courses, just 63 per cent of recent Ontario high-school graduates got "good grades" – defined by the study as a C or better. Mature students and those who graduated from high schools outside Ontario fared better.

The study is based on grades from 2006 and was conducted by the York-Seneca Institute for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, a joint project between York University and the college. Students in the sample attended six colleges – Centennial, George Brown, Humber and Seneca in Toronto, Georgian in Barrie and Sheridan in Oakville.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it found that students who had taken more advanced math courses in Grades 9 and 10 were more likely to be in this good-grades group.

Ms. Schollen said the lesson here is that students looking to go on to college programs where math is required – especially technology courses – may be getting the wrong message about what high-school courses they should take. Some may be tempted, she said, to take an easier course where they can get better grades, but they are not doing themselves any favours.

The study's findings, she said, show that students, parents and high-school guidance counsellors need to know more about postsecondary options.


2. High School grads adrift in Math 
Feb 13, 2008 Louise Brown  Toronto Star
One-third do so badly in community college, they must then take catch-up courses, study says

One-third of Ontario high school graduates are failing or struggling with math in their first term at community college, putting them at an "unacceptable risk" of dropping out, new research shows.

A study of more than 10,000 students who entered college in 2006 across the GTA discovered 34 per cent scored a D or F in first-term math – a showing so poor that technology and business programs are scrambling to offer more than one-third of incoming students catch-up courses in topics ranging from fractions, algebra, ratio and proportions to linear functions, trigonometry, geometry and using a scientific calculator.

It is not just that students can't do the math – many pick the wrong math courses in high school, opting for courses that don't offer sufficiently rigorous preparation, according to the College Mathematics Project, led by researchers at Seneca College.

More than half the students who took Grade 9 and 10 math at the more hands-on "applied" level ended up landing a D or F in first-term college math, compared to just 28 per cent of students who had studied at the more abstract "academic" level.

Too, the most popular senior high school math course in Ontario for college-bound students – College and Apprenticeship Math – seemed to provide poor grounding for college math, with 60 per cent of its students going on to fail or scrape by in first-year college technology programs, and 40 per cent in business.

"We're not pointing fingers or laying blame, because we all have to work together to help these students so they can fill the skills shortage we're facing in Ontario," said Seneca College President Rick Miner yesterday at the release of the two-year study, which was conducted jointly with six colleges and 10 school boards across southern Ontario. Centennial, George Brown, Georgian (in Barrie), Humber, Seneca and Sheridan colleges, plus the school boards, both Catholic and public, in Toronto, York Region, Halton, Peel and Simcoe County, took part.

"We need to solve this problem because the alternative is unacceptable – letting students simply fail," said Laurel Schollen, dean of Seneca's faculty of applied science and engineering technology, and one of the study's lead researchers.

The detailed tracking project also showed college students older than 23, who would have graduated from the old five-year high school program – do better at first-term college math than more recent grads, as do students from other provinces, of whom only 25 per cent get marks of D or F.

The study calls on both schools and families to realize college programs require solid math skills, especially in business and technology, said retired professor Graham Orpwood, one of the lead researchers in the provincially funded research project, from the York-Seneca Institute for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education.

"If you've taken applied math in Grade 9 and 10 and you're starting to show interest in college technology programs, you're going to have to crank up the math for the next two years and not just take the easiest (courses)," said Orpwood, whose study followed students who took math just before Queen's Park revised the math curriculum. The researchers hope to see in the next few years whether those changes help students' math grounding.

The study also calls on schools to encourage students to take the more rigorous college-preparation courses in math, even if enrolment seems small – in fact, the study showed only 6.5 per cent of students in college technology courses had actually taken the high school course designed to prepare them for it, possibly because it seems too tough.

"Parents and students and teachers all need to realize that, truthfully, college courses are very challenging and shouldn't be looked at as easy," said fellow researcher Margaret Sinclair, an education professor at York University.