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Advanced Math Isn't Going Away in Virginia, So Why Did It Dominate Headlines?

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After an inaccurate story about the Virginia Department of Education and plans for advanced math courses broke last week, it quickly took off on social media.

VPM's PolitiFact editor, Warren Fiske, spoke to Kate Masters, who covers health and education for the Virginia Mercury, to find out what outlets got wrong in that reporting, and what factors the state is considering when it reviews public education.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kate Masters: Most of the attention on this possible math initiative seems to come from a Fox News story that published on Friday and spread. And that story in turn drew heavily from social media posts by a Loudoun County School Board member interpreting what he heard, and an update from the Department of Education on a proposal called the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative. This whole idea of revamping math curriculum in Virginia is actually years in the making and started with colleges.

Warren Fiske: In simple terms, what is the Board of Education considering?

Masters: A curriculum revamp that would restructure the typical pathway of high school math instruction. Traditionally, researchers have found that's largely been a course in geometry sandwiched between two courses in algebra. This new initiative would incorporate those key concepts and “algebraic thinking,” as one source described it to me, into more foundational classes in the ninth and 10th grades that would also tie in concepts like data analysis and probability. And then in the 11th, and 12th grade, students would get the chance to choose advanced classes that could include calculus, but could also be things like statistics, or financial modeling.

Fiske: Why do they want to start all these foundational classes?

Masters: A lot of this is based on research that was not pioneered in Virginia, but has taken place across the country, kind of showing all students aren't always served by these traditional math classes. So there's sort of this combination of this phenomenon that researchers are seeing where even students who take advanced classes in high school end up having to retake math courses in college, coupled with the fact that a lot of math curriculum hasn't been updated in many years. So students are still really heavily focused on concepts that may not be as relevant today as they were, say, 50 years ago.

Fiske: So in other words, is Algebra 2 not as relevant as it might have once been?

Masters: Well, I think that algebra is still relevant. And it's especially relevant for kids who want to go into the STEM field. But there's sort of a growing acknowledgement that might be around 30% of students, but other students might be better served if they took statistics in high school that could sort of serve as a basis for classes that they take in the future.

Fiske: Does all this mean that advanced students could not take accelerated math classes before 11th grade?

Masters: The Virginia Department of Education has emphatically stated that is not the case. Our state superintendent of public instruction actually told reporters that he wouldn't approve a plan that completely eliminated accelerated courses. But right now, this initiative is still very much in the development phase. So it's not totally clear what it will look like when it's implemented. I think it's also important to note that in Virginia, local school boards ultimately have the final say on whether or not they offer accelerated courses and which students are eligible for them.

Fiske: These are proposals. What is the timeline for considering these changes?

Masters: Any type of permanent change to the state Standards of Learning would ultimately have to be approved by the State Board of Education, and a tentative timeline that was released shows that the board would be reviewing these potential changes and likely wouldn't vote on them until the 2023-24 school year. After that actual classroom changes wouldn't go into effect until 2025-2026. And VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) said it's possible that some schools might pilot the initiative, so it's possible that it wouldn't go into effect statewide until closer to 2030.