Math Track Survival Guide for parents in 8 steps

Math TrackThe right math track for a child is the one that helps them learn the subject to mastery, building a strong foundation for future success.

Sorting kids into a math track starts as early as 6th grade and in the majority of US schools by 8th grade. It is especially common in the suburbs and often works as follows.

1.  Understand how kids are assigned to a math track

In Spring a single algebra placement test might be given.  This might be the only opportunity to be in the highest level of both math and (later) science courses. Criteria are probably published in your school’s student handbook and may also include IQ and standardized test scores. Based on those results, Kids will be sorted into one of several tracks. For example, if tracking begins in 7th grade then there could be a placement exam in March or April of 6th grade. 

Students might be sorted onto these 5 math tracks.

  1. Kids with the highest scores will skip both 7th and 8th grade math and to take Algebra in 7th grade. The following year they will be eligible for Geometry and enriched science. The percentage of kids qualifying for this track varies from year to year, perhaps from 2% to 10%. Middle school algebra often covers both high school algebra and a brief overview of topics others covered in 7th or 8th grade.  As a result, high school students are usually in different sections.
  2. More kids will take an honors 7th grade math course that combines 7th and 8th grade math. The following year they’ll take middle school algebra described above.
  3. Majority of kids take algebra in 9th grade, and geometry in 10th here in our New Jersey suburbs. Since the SAT’s include algebra and geometry, this track can still position students for great scores on their SAT. In high school this track is often referred to as “College Preparatory.”  It is doing just that, preparing kids for college.
  4. There may be class sections that are co-taught by a regular education and a special education teacher. The material might be  the same or somehow modified for children needing extra supports. E.g., extra time for tests depending on the kids needs that year.  Some sections might have a less qualified teacher’s aide instead of a co-teacher.
  5. A math resource room.

Track named “College Preparatory”

When teachers refer to a child moving in or out of a “college prep” class, it can confuse parents. They aren’t making a judgement on whether that child will or can attend college.  They are referring to the name of the math track.

Why don’t schools emphasize it more?

Schools often don’t tell families much about placement exams.  It may be because some families get so worked up about them, especially in high performing districts. While it hurts everyone for a child to be in the wrong track, I initially found it hard to tell where my own kids should be.  The approach outlined below helped me and many of my friends to prepare.

2.  Which math track is right for my child?

  • Since math is a cumulative topic, mastery of each level before progressing to the next is very important. As a result, the criteria to stay in an accelerated track will be rigorous, such as an “A-” in 3 out of 4 quarters and no lower than a B+ for the other quarter.  While this might seem hardcore at first, in my experience this is very appropriate.  Sal Kahn did a wonderful TED talk, Let’s Teach to Mastery not Test Scores.
  • Algebra and the abstraction of variables is a big jump in thinking. Some kids just need some more time to wrap their brains around it, as my Mom, a mathematician explained.  It isn’t just about being bright. A chorus of experts agree – don’t take algebra too soon.
  • Some parents panic at the prospect of a “lower” language arts or math track for their child.  Yet, in a progressive district these kids will get the extra help they need and move back up to a higher level if appropriate.  I get many parent calls about math track placement. For several years, I co-chaired our district’s exceptional-kids parent support group. Also, my deaf son’s cochlear implants make his disability visible and I overcame Dysgraphia and ADD myself. As a result we’ve always been “out of the closet.”
  • Between 28 to 40% of first year students and over 50% of community college students need remedial classes according to studies.

3. What to expect the first year if your child accelerates her math track

If your child is put in an accelerated math track, especially Algebra then be a bit careful.

Algebra is a full on high school class and covers the same material as the 9th graders will see including a comprehensive mid-term and final exam. This is a big jump for kids and their parents.

The kids may have never had to study and parents may not be accustomed to checking homework or grades, so things can go south quickly.  During the first quarter, if grades are a B low then families may get a call encouraging their child drop down a level, which is a bit of surprise if neither of you realized there was a problem.   I’ve fielded many parent calls at this juncture as well since I also co-lead a parent STEM group. Many of these families could have easily helped with homework but get caught be surprise with the sudden jump from 6th grade to high school expectations.

Instead of having to make a big, high risk decision for my own 6th grader when I felt like I didn’t have enough information, I learned to encourage my kids to do the timely preparation, as I’ll outline below.

4. What to expect in high school

First comes algebra and geometry to be followed by trigonometry, algebra II, and pre-calculus. They can be combined in various ways with different names.  The content in Calculus AB and BC is more standardized for high schools participating in Advanced Placement testing.  There may be some opportunities to step up or down a level, but not every year.  Many schools won’t (officially) let you double up to move ahead a year or catch up with the kids who were strong early on.  This is the part that many parents and kids only realize later.

5. Preparing for college, or community college

  •  A recent study showed that in college low math confidence while taking the first year of Calculus tends to be the class that weeds out many hopefuls from STEM fields, especially women. If everything else is the same then it seems girls want to feel they have full command of the subject in order to continue with math. That is exactly what happened to me in college. I’d skipped the first semester of calculus after receiving a 3 on the Calculus AB exam. While I did well in the class grade-wise, with that feeling of non-mastery I turned to economics, a major I loved.
  • Both Engineering and project based calculus classes often require higher math placement test scores than Calculus. If your student is pursuing a STEM major then he or she will find it easier if they get some calculus in first, even it it is in summer school through a community college (or online) right before starting college.
  • Learning to mastery is key all along the way, rather than pushing ahead to a higher level before the basics are mastered. Sal Kahn did a great TED talk on teaching Math to mastery
  • Those who’ve taken college level math will tell you that a college calculus class is likely to be more rigorous than your high school class, so don’t be surprised if your college makes students repeat math classes if you can’t prove mastery of the material.   You’ll just have one easier class.  While the material covered might be the same, exam and practice questions will be much more sophisticated, appropriate for a more mature learner.

6. Best way to prepare for math tracking? Start early and learn the math cold!

While I aspire to be a great hands-on parent with lots of learning adventures, there are those tough days when I’m busy and think my kids have too much screen time.  That’s when the negotiations begin.  My mantras are “For every two hours of free screen time, do two hours of educational screen time.” and “grow your brain.”  They kind of know I’m right once they get into it.

For my own kids this occurs once they’ve gotten the routines of the school year down, feel comfortable in their classes and start to need some new challenges.  Our parenting styles often build on our strengths, and I’m a manager. I help them set their own goals and achieve them.

Self motivated is the best.

In the long run being a self-directed learner is powerful.  Therefore, I encourage freedom of choice at the beginning and they can grow their brains with what ever subjects interest them. Their topics range widely so I ask them to give me their hit list of the top five things to do this summer/season. Then we’ll get library books, take field trips and explore all the relevant web sites we can find.  We make the most of existing clubs and opportunities and create our own options when we needed to  ucvts-np-stem/” target=”_blank” data-cke-saved-href=”http://www.stemshoots.com/science-olympiad-ucvts-np-stem/”>strengthening existing clubs , attending events at local museums and going on STEM field trips.   I do whatever I can to fan intrinsic motivation and excitement, which works for a while.

Use Kid Tested Khan Academy Tips and Tricks for Math

When they start to lose their own focus I’d go to the 2 programs with the best dashboards: Khan Academy (free) and  to solidify what they have learned in school, starting in 3rd or 4th grade.  I’m firmly in the camp that sees Khan Academy as revolutionizing math education.  Here are all my Khan Academy Tips and Tricks Please share your lessons learned as well!

Before Khan Academy came around we used Study Island ($80 to $200 year) for Language Arts/grammar rules, Science and Math before Khan Academy came along.

We all do best when we have a voice in setting our own goals.  Remember it is a marathon not a sprint, so keep it light and fun.

Teachers and Tutors

Your child’s teacher probably has time available to help before or after school, so start there.

Many families use tutors successfully.  Some say their kids do better with a live person or struggle with a “flipped class room.” We have the means to do so, and I’ve offered my kids the option, but they’ve never wanted to.  My husband or I are able to help with most of the math, but our kids rarely ask for our help.  They prefer Khan Academy.  So if your kids are over-achievers, under-achievers, rich, poor, neurotypical, or have special needs I still recommend you start with Khan Academy.

7.  If you don’t get the math track you hoped to

If you don’t get the result you expect, then I’d at least inquire as to which criteria your child missed. I’ve seen the culprit be a missing IQ or standardized test score or even another child in district with the same name.  Also, transfer students often miss out even if they had qualified in their former district, so I’d ask in your old district and the new and provide data.

Many districts will use all objective criteria and exclude teacher recommendations to make the process fair and minimize the time discussing placement decisions with parents.

My own kids

How I came to care about math track placement

My middle child walked out of his algebra placement test and realized that he’d made a mistake at the beginning of a multi-part question and then missed all the subsequent parts.  When he got his placement letter a few months later, he placed lower than he & his father thought he should.  I just didn’t know.  So we inquired & then appealed his placement.  Since his grades and test scores were very strong we put him in 7th grade Algebra.   However, we were warned that he had to finish the year no matter how he struggled.  Personally, I wouldn’t have taken the risk, but he and his Dad were for it.  In retrospect, I would have been wrong and it was the right choice for him.  He’s finishing 4 years of calculus in high school, in part because he had such a solid foundation.

95% Rule

In 3rd grade my husband took him aside and said he had two choices.  He could study Mom’s way or if he kept a 95% or above on every single assignment then he could work independently.  However, if got a grade lower than that on anything then for the next month he’d have to work with me.  For him that approach worked and he’s been mostly independent since. Each kid is different.

Building their solid foundation

The summer between 3rd and 4th grade I asked all three of my kids to master the previous year’s work in Study Island.  I expected 2 hours of educational screen time before they got 2 hours of free screen time. This was back in the days before Khan Academy.  My middle son wanted to game, so he mastered the previous year’s math and English to get me off his case. That was the year that he went from being a good student to a great student.  Then, in middle school he used Khan Academy and other resources to study for entrance exams and math placement exams.  While he didn’t always reach his goals the first time, a solid foundation helped him along the way.

By my third child, I had learned.  At the end of 5th grade I told her she had a choice:

  1. Main Track – Repeat the same math topics in more depth in 7th and 8th grade  or
  2. Use Khan Academy to master the material and skip one or two years and take Algebra sooner.
    • Honors math track – 7th and 8th grade track condensed into 7th grade year and take honors Algebra in 8th.
    • Honors Algebra in 7th

She chose to study for the algebra placement test.  Others tell me they’ve found this advice helpful. 

Walking fine line between mastery and working too far ahead

Note that while she found she could work ahead on the algebra placement test subjects, she couldn’t work ahead in 6th grade math without being painfully bored.  We also met with her math teacher at the beginning of the year and made it clear we would support the teacher’s wishes.  We sent in a Math Olympiad for Elementary and Middle School book if she finished early.  She used it some in class and for a 6th grade parent-led Moems club.

8. Arguments for and against assigning a math track

Evidently, suburban districts start assigning math track starts earlier.  In urban district ones of the arguments against math tracks before high school is that poorer and otherwise disadvantaged youth are less likely to be placed in a higher math track.  Wouldn’t it be great to help raise the math level for all of our kids?

Other articles on tracking

by the Brooking Institute

PSST!  Know someone who might find this Survival Guide useful?  Please send it to them, quickly before you forget!  Also, pass on any survival tips of your own in the comments below.

Cecile Seth

Trying to make our world better. Mom to 3. Recovering Management Consultant. MBA. STEMshoots.com Founder.

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  1. May 28, 2017

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