In a data-driven world, Tennessee looks to add more statistics coursework to high school math

Teams of Tennessee math educators recommended in 2020 that their state place a greater emphasis on teaching statistics and data science, especially in the upper grades. (Getty Images/EyeEm)

More statistics, less advanced algebra.

Tennessee is trying to make math education more relevant for more high school students preparing for college and careers.

After a yearlong review of its math standards from kindergarten through graduation, state education leaders believe that content being taught in upper grades isn’t as useful as it could be in a data-driven world.

The Tennessee State Board of Education gave initial approval Friday to proposed revisions that increase coursework in basic statistics, including understanding and using data. A final vote is set for February.

The changes would usher in a notable shift in high school math beginning with the 2023-24 academic year. Tennessee would join states like California and Georgia in elevating statistics, data science, and quantitative reasoning to prepare students for a world where those concepts and skills are critical to fields like marketing, finance, polling, insurance, education, and medical research.

“We are living in a statistical society,” said Stephanie Kolitsch, a math education professor at the University of Tennessee-Martin, who led teams of Tennessee math educators that developed the recommendations.

“We felt — based on several reports and the information we gathered about college and career trajectories — students were not getting the foundation of statistics that they needed to have,” she said Thursday during a presentation to board members.

High school math sequences are already crowded and packed with topics to cover. The additions would require rejiggering STEM-related coursework, shifting some content from the first three years of high school to fourth-year courses that are more specialized for science, technology, engineering, and math.

The swap drew questions from board member Robert Eby, a chemical engineer in Oak Ridge who has led major technical work in federal facilities that help produce nuclear fuel for the Department of Energy. He worried about delaying introduction of key math concepts like complex numbers until senior year. And because not every senior signs up for pre-calculus, some students might not be exposed to them at all.

“By pulling standards out, are we watering down that technical path?” Eby asked.

Kolitsch said she didn’t think so. Such concepts would still be taught to students pursuing technical careers and then reinforced in college, she said. Currently, more college freshmen in Tennessee are signing up for statistics than algebra and calculus.

“The vast majority of our students are not going into the STEM fields. And we think that their time would be better spent being prepped for something that will make them a mathematically literate citizen,” Kolitsch said about using math to solve real-world problems after graduation.

America is doing some soul-searching about how to modernize math education, especially in high school where scores have been essentially flat for decades on the Nation’s Report Card.

According to the latest round of federal tests released last week, U.S. high school seniors’ math scores didn’t improve between 2015 and 2019. While not broken down by state, the data showed that only one in four high school seniors is proficient or advanced in math, while 40% have math skills considered “below basic.”

In Tennessee, reviews of academic standards happen every six years in subjects that rotate on different years. A year ago, the state launched a website inviting Tennesseans to comment publicly on its math standards. Teams of math teachers from K-12 and higher education reviewed more than 30,000 comments and, based also on their own expertise, proposed revisions that garnered another 45,000 comments during a second round of public feedback. In September, their final suggestions were approved by a committee appointed by Gov. Bill Lee and legislative leaders.

Revisions proposed for K-8 math standards are mostly minor but would introduce statistical concepts at a younger age. The recommended changes for high school were harder to agree on, especially moving some content from Algebra II to a pre-calculus course offered in the fourth year of high school.

“We had long, involved discussions,” Kolitsch said. “The deciding factor in every case went back to the question: ‘Is this something that every student needs to know by the time they graduate high school?’”

The approved standards will be incorporated into new instructional materials, teacher training, and end-of-course tests. Next year, the state plans to launch a related review of standards for fourth-year high school math courses like pre-calculus, applied math, and statistics.

“Standards are the core and they drive instruction and they also drive an aligned assessment,” said Amy Owen, the board’s director of policy and research. “That’s why we have a couple-year gap to make sure all of those things are in place before these go into classrooms.“

You can see the proposed standards here.

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