High school may raise bar in math

Superintendent favors four years

Anticipating a change to state university requirements in 2016, the Sharon school district is considering requiring four years of math for high school graduation instead of three.

If Sharon approves the policy, which could happen as early as this month, the district will join a growing number of school systems in the state - 29 percent in 2010 - that mandate a fourth year.

Those districts have approved the requirement to take effect with the class of 2016 or earlier. Starting in fall 2016, graduating seniors will need four years of math to gain admission to state universities in Massachusetts.


Among school systems south of Boston, the change takes effect in Braintree with the class graduating next year and in the Silver Lake regional district, which includes Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton, with the class of 2016.

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Administrators in Sharon and other districts that require three years, including Marshfield and Rockland, said most students already take four years of math.

Timothy Farmer, school superintendent in Sharon, said he favors the four-years requirement. He said students need the final math course to be prepared for life after high school, but that the policy would not signal a one-size-fits-all curriculum. Not every student will take calculus, he said, so the district needs to examine what other courses it should offer to make mathematics as relevant as possible to all students.

Farmer said he would like to hear recommendations from a committee currently reviewing the math and science curricula before he reports to the School Committee.

The School Committee could vote on the four-years math requirement this month, said chairwoman Laura Salomons. “I personally am inclined to vote for it,’’ she said.


However, School Committee member Jeff Cruzan, a math teacher at the private Moses Brown School in Providence, is skeptical, saying he is “not a big fan’’ of the requirement.

“A lot of people grow up to be writers, and artists, and dancers, and things like that,’’ he said. “As a math guy through and through, I really think we give short shrift, sometimes, to the arts.’’

Cruzan said he believes the push to add a fourth year stems in part from Sharon High School’s being named a 2011 Blue Ribbon School by the US Department of Education. The award creates the idea in people’s minds that Sharon should have higher expectations, he said.

He characterized the growing demand for four math courses as “a rite of passage, rather than a rational approach’’ to what students really need. “We don’t have to be just sheep,’’ he said.

Although the state has not formally gathered data about which districts require four years of math, a survey of programs of study posted on Massachusetts high school websites in 2010 found that 29 percent required four years of math, according to JC Considine, spokesman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.


The state has recommended four years of math since at least 2007, when the Board of Education approved MassCore, a recommended course of study to prepare students for careers and college. The department hopes to increase the MassCore completion rate to 82.5 percent for the class of 2014, up from about 70 percent last year, Considine said.

More math helps students in concrete ways, he said. Fewer students who take a fourth year of math will need a remedial course in college. And with the growth of the science and technology industries in Massachusetts, companies are looking to recruit graduates who have advanced skills in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Considine pointed to a report by Hanover Research of Washington, D.C., on the implementation of curriculum requirements.

The April 2011 report reviews literature on the success of mandatory college-preparatory curricula and an alternative strategy, employed in 13 states, in which schools automatically enroll students in a college-preparatory curriculum but give them an opportunity to opt out.

“There did seem to be a clear relationship between raising the bar in high school and college success,’’ said Sid Phillips, senior vice president and managing director of Hanover Research.

The report notes, however, that a literature review by the US Department of Education “found little rigorous evidence of a correlation between a college-ready curriculum and actual college readiness.’’ Some studies supported the correlation, but others provided mixed evidence.

In the Silver Lake district, School Committee chairwoman Cassandra Hanson said the board decided in May to mandate a fourth year of math partly because of the university requirement, but also because a fourth year is being required by more private colleges and becoming the norm among high schoolers.

“When we looked into it, about 80 percent of students were already taking four years of math, so it made sense to make it a requirement,’’ Hanson said. She said students still have enough flexibility to take electives.

Braintree Superintendent Peter Kurzberg said his district approved the change in January to give additional math skills to the small number of students not already taking four years of math. Braintree’s status as a Race to the Top district obligates it to show progress toward meeting the MassCore standards, he said.

With the state university requirement looming in 2016, more districts are likely to make the change.

In Rockland, which requires three years of math, Superintendent John Retchless said he would like to see all students take another year, even though the district has no immediate plans to make it mandatory.

“I can see us moving in that direction,’’ he said.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at