Teaching to the Test kinda works, Calculus edition

So one of the things I’ve been looking into for kid-education-related reasons is the prevalence of calculus at the high school level and whether it’s working out in terms of college prep. What I found was an interesting and rather dispiriting scenario in which teaching to the AP Calculus tests has become a standard and as a result calculus at the high school level’s relationship to mathematics preparation at the college level changed from the 1990s to the 2000s.

Power series are big in Japan.

In the 1990s, much of high school calculus was neither tailored to the AP curriculum nor necessarily the AP curriculum. Understandably, this meant that high school calculus varied wildly in quality across the nation in both public and private schools. The upshot was that through the 1990s, geometry, trigonometry and algebra grades in high school were more predictive of passing college calculus than high school calculus because it was more likely across schools that a well-prepared student had gotten a basic and relatively rigorous standard of pre-calculus preparation.

These aren’t just for dummies, they’re pretty important if you want to get anywhere useful in the wide green land of calculus.

Of course, the natural response of the new waves of college educated striver parents was to simply make sure that their kids not only took calculus in high school, but that they took the exact exam-based calculus that was used to grant course credit at the college level. Now high school calculus grades are plenty predictive of being able to do all right in college math classes, but the exam scores are far more so. That is, teaching to the test becoming the widely adopted standard for calculus at the high school level now means that doing well at spitting out exam answers demonstrates a strong ability to do so in similarly-structured college classes, and they frequently are.

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I’m relaxed about this particular form of grade grubbing and memorization-as-mathematics because you can’t reason with people who will just keep doubling down in a rather pointless arms race. And college-graduate parents have done just that. The new college-ready ratchet is teaching calculus in middle school. You’re so surprised it’s happening in DC area schools. No, really, you are. It’s less than 1% of all students taking calculus pre-college now, but it’s quite plausible the number grows to somewhere around one in ten students over the next five or six years. There’s no reason to stop, since calculus has in many respects been stripped down to exam-friendly format even at the college level and if a 15 year old can memorize enough problem structures and formulas, it’s not hard to see parents making a 13 year old do the same for that extra edge, what with it already happening.

Coming to a SuperZip near you any day now.

“You’re just saying that because your kids can’t do it.”  Nope, my kids are pretty likely  on the end of the bell curve that has a fifth grader being able to do the necessary trigonometry to understand calculus intuitively.  The difference between me and married parents with five degrees between them whose kids can actually understand advanced math pre-pubescently is that I don’t think standardizing the system so that it’s considered reasonable for the generic student to start memorizing algebra problem forms at age 8 so they can plug and play calculus by age 11 is worthwhile or a good use of resources.

There is no good end game here, just an eventual reset towards sanity, but probably only after nervous breakdowns of elementary schoolers have unfortunately become standardized.

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