Are We Pushing Kids Too Hard?

A new requirement in California forces every 8th grader to enroll in Algebra and take a proficiency exam. This will be the first time students must take an upper-level math test prior to entering high school.

The hope is that “the new policy will push school districts to ensure that eighth-graders are ready for the demands of algebra.” In today’s educational arguments, the predominant position among politicians and the business community seems to center on pushing students harder and on forcing students to take higher level coursework earlier in their educational journeys.

I am not a fan of these types of requirements. Simply speaking, I think these types of policies do not recognize the conceptual growth of students and the time many students need to ready themselves for advanced studies. Students do not develop at the same rates. Some need more time, others less. Appropriately placing students is critical to their success.

If education is going to continue down the road of high stakes testing and exit exams at the high school level, I believe the exit exams or credit earning should occur earlier. Once students begin to move from classroom to classroom for their coursework (no longer with a single teacher for the duration of the school day), this is the time to begin the exit testing or to begin making students earn credits to move along from grade to grade.

In Washington State we have the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning), which students must pass in high school in order to graduate. Most of our students do pass the exam, though not all on the first attempt. A couple students tell me every year that they did not try hard because “it never counted before.” They are referring to the WASL exams taken each year from 4th through 8th grade with full testing in 4th and 7th grade. The state conditioned them to “just take another test” rather than try to pass the tests.

Waiting until students reach high school to hold students accountable is too late. Students cement their habits in the middle schools and often believe they can ramp up their work ethic at the high school, which often results in course failures. I regularly speak with students who happily explain that they failed courses in middle school because no one made them pass the classes. This goes for the state tests as well.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of middle school teachers but of the system in which they work. Waiting until students are in their 10th year of education is too late to then force them to meet standards. I do not like exit exams, but I endorse earning credits.

In my district not forcing students to earn credits in middle school means the high school (the only one in the district) must take every failure in the district and is held accountable for all of these students. My high school will never escape NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), in large part because of this very problem

To be fair, wherever the line is drawn for students to earn credits, this will be the point where failures rise. This has to be acceptable for a time until students and parents adjust to the system

However, this also means allowing students to progress through the system at the appropriate level. Forcing students to take upper-level courses too quickly will only increase failures and frustration. As one girl in the article stated, “I don’t think I was prepared. I think they just, like, pushed me into algebra. . . . Math was like a different language I never understood. I felt hopeless.”

Plus, the required algebra exam in California will be given to all students, even if they have never taken an algebra class. Even an easier algebra test “‘would be ‘meaningless and cruel’ for students who, because they weren’t ready, hadn’t taken algebra,’ testified Charles T. Munger Jr., a math curriculum expert.” He seems to have summed up the situation quite nicely.

Where do you stand on the testing and/or the earning of credits in middle schools?


3 thoughts on “Are We Pushing Kids Too Hard?

  1. Mystery Teacher

    I think that the powers that be need to understand that not everyone is headed for college. They need to back off. Just because we have college does not make us smart. I know some very smart people who never went to college. Children need to grow up and be allowed to grow up without all this pushing and proding to do more and more. We now expect kindergarteners to read. OMG! Kinder was supposed to be to teach them how to behave in school and get along with others. Now they have to read?

  2. Dr Saxe

    No I don’t think that we are pushing kids to much, here in the States we are so lame when it comes to education, we have a long way to go and we all need a good push now and then.
    Dr Saxe

  3. drpezz Post author

    Dr. Saxe,

    Welcome to the conversation! I look forward to hearing from you here more often.

    In regards to the post, in what ways do you believe “we are so lame when it comes to education”?

    How would you counter the argument that some kids just are not ready at 8th grade for algebra?


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