Back to School – Changes at Aragon HS

A new math class, late start Thursdays, and an update on precalculus exams.

MATH 190

The new 2017-2018 school year adds a new math class to the Aragon curriculum, Math 190.

Math 190 appears to be a statistics class at a lower level than AP Statistics and is designed for students headed for community college.  It appears to be patterned after Math 190 at the College of San Mateo.  I have not yet heard who will be teaching this class.

I have written previously about the large gap between the AP math classes and “Finite Math” at Aragon in my article A Hole in the Aragon Math Curriculum, but I recommended that Aragon fill this gap with a non-AP calculus class.  The math department does not believe that there is sufficient demand for such a class which is another unfortunate example of the stranglehold that the College Board has on the college bound curriculum as I described in (It’s AP ex(sc)am time again! , Critical Warnings re AP Classes , and Info from UC Berkeley confirms why students should not skip from Precalculus to Calculus BC).

I continue to believe, based on my tutoring of Aragon students for the last five years, that students bound to a four year college, but who are not planning to be physical scientists, engineers, or mathematicians, would learn more and end up less math-phobic in a non-AP calculus class.  Currently they feel compelled to take AP calculus because other options would not “look good” on their transcripts, and they often harm their GPA in the process.

Math 190 will unfortunately not help this group of kids, but, since a significant fraction of Aragon students go to CSM, I assume that there must be a demand for it.

Late Start Thursdays

The SMUHSD has been discussing later start times to allow students to be less sleep deprived.  Unfortunately, commute problems for teachers and parents have been obstacles to achieving this goal, but this year the bell schedule has been changed on Thursdays.

In years past Wednesday and Thursday were “block days” with dismissal as early as 1:45 PM on Thursdays.  Teachers stayed later on Thursdays to engage in collaborative efforts like lesson planning.  This year school uniformly lets out at 3:15 PM and starts on Thursdays at 9:30.  The Teacher collaboration time was moved to 8:00 AM on Thursdays.  I assume this is the best achievable compromise on the later start issue.  The Aragon Outlook, the school newspaper, has an article on this topic.

Precalculus Update

Readers of NextDoor in the San Mateo Highlands will remember that a disastrous precalculus textbook experiment two school years back is what led to my writing a series of articles about local education problems and then subsequently to the production of this blog,

Last school year my students involved in that experiment took AP Calculus, and I had a smaller number of precalculus students.  This year the situation has reversed again.

I was gratified to see, however, that the Aragon precalculus program appears to have taken to heart the concern that too many of their chapter tests contained too many tricky questions.  These questions would require students to combine homework concepts in novel ways for the very first time on an exam.  Students who had diligently completed all of the homework were finding their grades knocked down to the low C, D, and even F range if they did not have the math skill to think “out of the box” under exam pressure.

I suggested at the time in several meetings with Aragon staff that it is appropriate to include a few such questions to separate out the top students from the rest, but that the practice seemed to be going to extremes.  The effect was often to weed students out of AP classes and leave them no other options than the low level Finite Math class that I mentioned in this article above.  Every year I received calls from parents a few weeks into the school year that began with “my child has always received A’s in math, but now they are failing this class even though they are working hard and doing all of the homework.”  Students would tell me that the test questions were unlike anything on the homework, and, having worked on the homework with some of them, I was in a position to agree.

Fortunately, this past year, the precalculus exams that I saw still contained some of these challenge questions, but they appeared to be largely for extra credit.  In years past, when students complained to me about unfair tests, I tended to agree with them.  Last year for the first time, I usually found that when students did not do well on the exams, I could no longer fault the tests which I thought were fair assessments.

There are some who might say that this is “dumbing down the curriculum,” but I strenuously disagree.  Precalculus remains a very challenging class at Aragon, but at least fewer students who try hard will be knocked all the way down to a D or F as a reward for their efforts.  Getting an A will still not be easy.


Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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