Study Shows Cancelled Math Program Improves Test Scores

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COLUMBIA - A three-year study led by two MU professors shows that high school students enrolled in math courses covering a variety of topics--algebra, geometry and statistics--instead of separate, single subject courses perform better on standardized tests.  The study surveyed 3,000 high school students from around the nation. MU math education professor James Tarr said the study showed a significant improvement in student learning in what are called "integrated math" classrooms.  

"Students who studied from an integrated curriculum out performed those who studied in a more traditional sequence," Tarr said.  

Not only are test scores higher, but Columbia integrated math students said an integrated curriculum relates math to real-life situations.

"It works better for me. Instead of giving me an equation and having to memorize it and then just doing it, repetition until it's beaten into you," Rock Bridge High School junior Samuel Gurnsey said.  "You do a lot more deriving of equations, so you take the information and the book helps you work through and sometimes you even find that you'll be several steps ahead in one problem because it's just working you through the thought process."

Another student said the classroom environment is what improves student learning. 

"I like that we are with the same people usually throughout our years here, so I've been able to get close to people that I wouldn't have been close to," Rock Bridge High School junior Renata Williams said. 

Despite good reviews from students in the courses, in June 2012, the Columbia School Board decided to phase out the integrated math curriculum for a variety of reasons, the most prominent being low enrollment. About two percent of Columbia high-schoolers are currently enrolled in integrated math

CPS math coordinator Dana Hibbard said low enrollment may be because people are afraid to try a course that sounds different.

"We would all like to see our scores change, but the problem seems to be inherent in the fact that there is a fear when what we do in classrooms change," Hibbard said. 

 Integrated math teacher Marla Clowe said the format of standardized tests could also be to blame.

"Just the fact that standardized tests have always been so skill-oriented and about speed and basically memorization of facts [could be to the cause]," Clowe said.  "Take the ACT. It's 60 questions in 60 minutes. It's about speed and repetition, whereas integrated curriculum more is about thought-provoking questions that take a longer time, and you don't automatically have an answer in 30 seconds or 60 seconds."

Both integrated and traditional math curricula currently taught in Columbia classrooms meet the state's core standards.  Students enrolled in integrated math will finish out their last year or two in the program, but by fall of 2015, the curriculum will not be offered.