Failing a High School Algebra Class 'Isn't the End of the World'

Kelsey Sheehy

Included in the New York Times Sunday Review this week was an op-ed that asked a seemingly simple question: Is algebra necessary?

Algebra requirements trip up otherwise talented students and are the academic instigators behind the nation's high school and college dropout rates, argues Andrew Hacker, an emeritus professor at CUNY--Queens College and author of the much-debated article. Hacker's challenge to the high school math equation elicited strong responses from parents, educators, mathematicians, and the like over the merits of algebra and other math classes.

Another Times blogger, with an admitted math aversion, says algebra taught her "discipline and the importance of linear, organized thinking."

Hacker argues that students should understand basic arithmetic, but memorizing complex mathematic formulas bring little value to society. "There is no evidence that being able to prove (x ² + y ²) ² = (x ² - y ²) ² + (2xy) ² leads to more credible political opinions or social analylsis," Hacker writes.

He also implies algebra was the reason 33 percent of high school seniors in Oklahoma failed to pass their state exit exams last year. But 82 percent of Oklahoma high schoolers passed their end-of-instruction algebra exams this year, and 74 percent were proficient in algebra II, according to recent article on the Oklahoman's website.

[Find out what's boosting high school graduation rates.]

Necessary or not, algebra isn't going anywhere, and students can fall behind quickly if they fail to grasp a concept or theory. So what should parents do if their student is failing to make the grade in their high school math class--or any class for that matter?

Failing one class is "not the end of the world," says Brie Jeweler-Bentz, an educational consultant and college adviser for the School Counseling Group in Washington, D.C.

"I have many students who have just tanked," she says. "The best thing to keep in mind for parents is to know what the requirements are."

If your teen is failing a class that is required for high school graduation or college admission, figure out why they're struggling, and work with them to devise a game plan, she says.

"Do they need extra help? Is there stuff they don't understand? Are they just not studying?" Jeweler-Bentz says.

Understanding why their teen is struggling can help parents figure out if their student needs a tutor or a time management coach, she says, adding that parents should have their students take ownership of the issue and seek out their teachers to find out what options are available.

"They're getting ready to transition to college, so they should be doing this if at all possible," she says. "It's about learning how to be a good student. Learning how to ask for help if they need it."

[Find out how to make a smooth transition to college.]

Withdrawing from the class or moving to a more remedial class may be an option if the grade isn't salvageable, Jeweler-Bentz says.

If your child does end up with an F on their final report card, retaking the class can help bolster their college admissions prospects, she adds.

"It's going to hurt your GPA, but it shows them you're capable of handing the material."

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