USM study: Eighth-grade math deficiency difficult to overcome, but it can be done

Posted Jan. 24, 2014, at 11:22 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 24, 2014, at 4:02 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Students who did not meet the state’s standards for proficiency in eighth grade math were much more likely to enroll in remedial math classes once they got to college, according to a study released on Thursday by the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation.

“The key is eighth grade mathematics proficiency,” the study says. “It opens the gate to a successful high school and college career in mathematics.”

However, the study also showed that in most cases, students who only partially met the standard in eighth grade were able to catch up by taking a rigorous set of courses once they got to high school.

“Students need to successfully complete at least a precalculus course to be college-ready,” the study states.

Of the students who partially met the standard in eighth grade and went on to take precalculus, only 22 percent had to take a remedial class at the college level versus about 40 percent who did not take precalculus.

Amy Johnson, the assistant director of CEPARE who presented the report to the Legislature’s education committee on Thursday, said she hopes the results of the study encourage students to push themselves to take rigorous courses in high school.

“Part of this is trying to shift some of the conversation to make sure that kids are aware that the bar for college readiness might be a little higher than they thought it was,” she said on Friday. “Just taking the minimum recommended course sequence may not get them there.”

Almost a third of the students enrolled at a University of Maine System or Community College System school are enrolled in remedial classes, according to the report.

Students have to pay for the remedial courses they take in college, though those courses don’t count as credits toward graduation, raising the likelihood that those students’ college careers will be prolonged and they will accrue more expenses.

A 2011 study reported that an estimated $18 million was spent on remedial courses in Maine during the 2007-08 school year.

The portion of students taking remedial classes on University of Maine System campuses has drawn attention in recent years, leading some to suggest it is too high and that high schools are not doing enough to prepare students for college.

In 2013, Gov. Paul LePage proposed legislation that would require high schools to pay for the remedial courses their graduates have to take in college. The proposed bill died in committee.

LePage has since resubmitted a similar version of the same bill.

Only students who had graduated from a Maine public school in 2010 and enrolled in one of the University of Maine System’s seven campuses were studied for this report. The study compared the math profiles of students who needed to enroll in remedial math classes with those who did not. The math profiles included the students’ scores on the Maine Educational Assessment in eighth grade and the series of math courses they took in high school.

The results of the study did not surprise Jonathan Bender, a math teacher at Ellsworth High School. He said it’s always been clear that students who don’t do well in math in middle school have a shaky foundation upon which to build in high school.

“The real question for me is, what is it that leads a child to not doing well in eighth grade?” he said. “Every year it becomes a little harder … It’s much easier to turn around a second grader who didn’t like math in first grade.”

Evelyn Beaulieu, curriculum coordinator for RSU 25, which serves the Bucksport area, pointed out that a lot has changed in public school education in Maine since the students studied here were in school.

“It used to be with a passing grade, you got credit for the course,” she added. “Now you have to show proficiency to pass the course.”

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