A new school year has brought curriculum changes, and in Georgia and South Carolina a major focus is on math.
This year, Math III was introduced to 11th-graders as part of a seven-year process to revolutionize math instruction in Georgia middle and high schools.
Where math classes once were delineated by a particular discipline, such as algebra or geometry, courses now combine them.
"It's no longer students just plugging numbers into a formula to calculate an answer," said Kimberly Belcher, a Math III teacher at Lakeside High School. "Students are now learning multiple concepts to see the relationship between and discover for themselves why those formulas work."
Belcher's student Taylor Goodin, 16, likes the multiple-concepts approach to math.
"You can be weak in algebra, but if you're good at geometry or statistics you still can pull out a good grade," she said as she calculated the geometric changes of a fractal image called a Koch snowflake.
But relying on a mastery of one math discipline to overcome a weakness in another did not help thousands of Georgia students last year. Nearly half of Georgia's sophomores failed Math II. Test scores were so poor that the state Board of Education recently introduced Math III support classes so struggling students could relearn concepts from previous courses while still earning credits.
In Aiken County, administrators also have been keying in on math. In the past year, officials have implemented initiatives to beef up curriculum to keep students ahead of state standards. After several years of testing pupils in third through eighth grades with a Measures of Academic Progress accountability test, several areas, including math curriculum, stood out.
In the past year, third-grade math and the transition to eighth- and ninth-grade algebra have been the focus. Michele Conner, Aiken County's elementary education director, said that after a dip in third-grade math scores on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, teachers have started finding new ways to teach without the textbook. The current South Carolina third-grade text was introduced last year.
"There are no new textbooks this year, but we're changing the mindset so the textbook is just one resource," she said.
Second-grade teachers are also being encouraged to take their teaching past state requirements so their pupils are prepared for third-grade content, Conner said.
The district has also created an Algebra Institute with instructors from the University of South Carolina Aiken and Aiken Technical College to ensure that eighth- and ninth-graders are prepared for high school math and can have smoother transitions into college.
Another change includes swapping end-of-course test science requirements from physical science to biology. Students are required to pass English 1, Algebra 1, a science and U.S. history to graduate. Area 5 District Superintendent Randy Stowe said students already enrolled in physical science will be grandfathered into the new requirements.
In Columbia County, support classes in math are being offered in the form of power periods -- 30-minute classes during the school day for students to receive remediation or enrichment. The school system also offers students computer programs designed to address their particular deficits, and instructional coaches help educators better teach the concepts.
Rose Carraway, the system's director of high school student learning, said that such innovative methods helped 82 percent of last year's Math II students in Columbia County pass the class. Though Carraway admits that teachers first struggled to implement the new math curriculum, she believes it's a necessary change to better prepare students for college and the work force.
"The kids have to think (problems) through and determine what math (discipline) applies to them," she said. "It's not just number-crunching anymore."
For instance, fractals are math concepts often used in computer programming and broadcasting, Belcher said. The new curriculum, she said, places more emphasis on statistics, which she believes were neglected in the former curriculum.
Tougher math standards are also applying in Richmond County, where math has been a tough subject lately. The most recent AYP results showed that six of nine middle schools missed AYP only in math and that all but one elementary school missed AYP only in math. Richmond County schools have partnered with Augusta State University's math department to provide content courses for math teachers.
Dr. Shelly Allen, Richmond County mathematics coordinator, said that because there is a more common lesson plan for math at the high school level this year, there is more collaboration on lesson planning among teachers. She said data are being used at a greater level to identify students in need of extra math instruction.