Saturday, May 28, 2005

If You Can't Do Algebra, Then You Can't Take Calculus (Sorry)

We've just wrapped up the Accelerated Summer Session, and regular summer classes (both first session and full term) will start on Tuesday. But it's the following week when the real fun begins: freshman orientation and placement testing.

Due to reasons beyond my understanding, high school math and college math are completely unaligned. The K-12 system sends us students whose knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep: we get students who are shaky at algebra, frightened of fractions, and unsure of how to find the areas of basic plane figures (and completely unable to accept the idea that it is a reasonable request to ask them to solve non-standard problems where the method of solution is not immediately obvious), but they have been exposed to matrix arithmetic, computations from polynomial calculus and other supposedly "advanced" procedures. You would think that the "college prep" track would prepare students for college, but it doesn't. Recently I read somewhere (maybe in Focus?) that there is more calculus taught in high schools than there is at colleges. (Perhaps this is because colleges are unwilling to teach calculus to students who can't do algebra?)

And this leads to two types of complaints. The first is when incoming students perform poorly on our placement test and are advised into a lower level class than they expect. They become indignant: "But I took calculus in high school!" The other complaint comes at the end of the semester: "This class was unfair and way too hard. I got [grade] in it, but I got [higher grade] when I took calculus in high school!"