Imagine this: You are stuck at the bottom of the biggest mountain in the world, perhaps even in the middle. Everyone who has reached the peak of the daunting mountain is taunting you, piling more and more pressure onto you. Bystanders are scornful. They think, How simple it is! How foolish they are! No one seems to understand your struggle, your true fight with the beast.
Sadly, this “beast” is truly alive. Metaphorically, of course, but is that any better? It’s this beast controlling the ladder of accelerated math, its ridges and bumps making it the slipperiest and most dangerous ladder anyone could ever climb. Yet many students still climb it each year, hoping to get to the top, either by their parents’ force or their own desire to belong. Either way, we only celebrate those who reach the top.
Take Riya, a middle schooler from New Jersey. She has not even grasped the first rung of this ladder, yet she is still feeling the dire effects. The desire to climb is nearly as dangerous as the ladder itself — maybe even more so. The desire to try, to reach the top, is just too much to handle.
Riya describes herself as a usually happy person, with an “occasional meltdown.” Why? Well, it isn’t the typical teenage stuff you would expect. It’s not about boys, or makeup, or what her parents won’t let her do. No, it’s about her future, which in her mind depends significantly on skipping math levels.
“Skipping equals possibly another AP equals possibly a better college equals possibly a better job equals possibly more money, which equals a possibly better future,” she reveals to me in a long-winded text.
When we remove the equal signs, what we get is this: Skipping math levels is equal to a better future. This seems to be the theory driving so many students to climb the dangerous (and possibly unnecessary?) ladder of doom.
Let’s take a step back. What is this ladder? Where does it go? How many students climb it? Why? For starters, let’s look at what accelerated math even is.
According to Atlanta Public Schools, accelerated math is a program that is “designed to support the mathematical abilities of our most talented and motivated students.” Similarly, according to Desana Middle School, accelerated math is “a rigorous course of study that moves at a rapid pace and incorporates challenging and demanding material . . . The program is designed for students who excel at mathematics, are self-motivated and are interested in pursuing more advanced mathematics classes in high school.”
11.4% of 18-year-olds in the United States are in these advanced math programs. This is about average compared to other countries such as the Russian Federation, Lebanon, Norway, Sweden, France, Italy, Portugal, and Slovenia. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a test given to students in about 65 different countries, and its purpose is to provide important background information that can be used to improve teaching and learning in mathematics and science. On the TIMSS, students in the U.S. generally performed above average or a little above average compared to other nations.
So basically, accelerated math goes at a faster pace than normal math and is for students who are doing well in math and have a strong passion for it. Nearly one in every ten 18-year-olds in the United States take math, which is normal compared to countries across the world. Accelerated math is generally a benefit, as most students outperform 50% of their global peers.
But forget the fancy statistics, forget the test results. Why don’t we take a deeper dive into the students in accelerated math programs, see them as actual people rather than as numbers bunched into one big group for some gaudy newspaper to examine and analyze, and see why students actually want to be in accelerated math programs.
For some students, such as Michelle and Isabella, they didn't have much of a choice at all. When they were younger, they were simply selected as the more “talented” of students and put into a higher class. The one test they took in second grade has determined the class they are in eternally.
To some people, this may seem like torture. Why would I be in a high class simply because I was smart in first grade? they may think. Yet for many other students, being put in a higher math class so effortlessly would be a dream come true, without the worry of having to study to skip, without the feeling of incompetence that comes with not being in the highest math level. As Charlotte puts it, she’s motivated to skip “somewhat [by] a desire for challenge and somewhat because I thought that if I didn’t then I would be a disappointment.”
This feeling of disappointment seems to be a common thread throughout all students: the feeling of being “stupid” if they are not in the highest math level and that they cannot accomplish something so within reach. Riya says, “since a lot of my friends have skipped math levels, it makes me feel bad/kinda dumb that I haven’t skipped. I feel as if I have to be with ‘the dumb kids’ in class.” Even though the class is not inherently for “dumb kids,” the environment around accelerated math makes the normal seem bad.
But this fear of disappointment had to have come from somewhere, right? Maybe it’s from their parents, maybe it’s from themselves, or maybe a combination of both. For Riya, both she and her parents place the same amount of pressure on her, the fear of disappointment fueling her to persevere up the ladder of doom. For Michelle, she feels stress to do well in school in order to get into a good college, so as not to disappoint her parents by going to a so-called “unacceptable” college. And for Isabella, the pressure she places on herself is mounted on top of her parent’s high, and possibly unrealistic, expectations for her, causing her to face a lot of pressure to do well in school.
So what can we get from all this? Well, no matter the math level, or how students got into their math levels, or their age, or where they go to school, math is still a stress for all students. It seems to be a fear of the future, that not being in accelerated math somehow ruins your future and life. Because, you know, college. Again, it’s the same old “accelerated math = good college,” spoken repeatedly by students, parents, and friends. But is it really true? Is accelerated math really that important for getting into a “good” college?
According to Harvard University, applicants to Harvard are expected to take the most rigorous secondary school curriculum that is available to them, and it is recommended that applicants take four years of math courses in high school. However, applicants’ math records are looked at as a whole, and there is no specific course that is required. Instead, applicants are encouraged to take courses that are available to them and aligned with what they are interested in and passionate about. Students are encouraged to master fundamental math courses rather than rushing through more advanced ones.
Similarly, according to Yale University, Yale has a “whole-person” approach to admissions, and the absence of any specific class would not affect an applicant’s outcome. Students are expected to take advantage of opportunities that are available to them; however, different schools have different restrictions for what students can take, and students are not expected to take courses that are not accessible to them. Yale is looking for students that will make the most of their campus’s opportunities and build on their talents. It does not have specific course requirements and instead encourages students to pursue their intellectual interests and passions.
According to these “good” colleges, maybe math isn’t as important in college applications as it’s made out to be. After all, applicants seem to be seen as a whole person rather than just the math courses that they have taken. All colleges ask is that students try their best, take advantage of the courses available to them, and work hard throughout their high school years. In the grand scheme of things, there are more important aspects of your application than your math level.
This whole “advanced math” thing is still such an unreasonable source of stress for many students. In fact, it’s not only limited to math. As Riya puts it, she often feels that projects and tests are “never ending” because she has so many things to study for that she often feels lost as to where to start. Many students also find specific courses difficult. For example, Michelle finds math and science the hardest, while Yuqi struggles most with writing.
It turns out math is not the only thing affecting students’ stress levels. School as a whole seems to have a negative effect on their mental health.
According to Inside Higher Ed, the stress students feel about grades along with the pressure placed on them by parents and teachers has caused a mental health crisis in teens and college- aged students. Rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation have spiked dramatically, with academic stress being a leading cause.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 see anxiety and depression as a major problem amongst people their age. 61% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades, compared to 29% who feel pressure to look good and 21% who feel pressure to be involved in extracurricular activities and to be good at sports. This academic pressure seems to be tied to students’ post-graduation goals. 59% of teens say that they plan to attend a four-year college after they finish high school, believing they will become more likely to find getting good grades crucial to their success. 97% of girls and 93% of boys say that having a job or career that they enjoy would be extremely important to them as an adult.
And for our students? How does all this stress and pressure affect their mental health? As Charlotte says it, she doesn’t have “peak mental health,” outlining school as a main source of stress. Michelle says that her mental health is “pretty good,” then changes it to say “not too bad,” showing that she is still staying strong despite the pressure. And Yuqi quite bluntly states that her mental health is not too good, saying that “life is hard — things go wrong.” No further explanation was needed, we all know this. We often find ourselves struggling to stay afloat in the boat of life, the water rising while the rain pours down harder and harder, feeling lost while everything else seems to be floating away.
Even though it seems that accelerated math programs at least partially contribute to this interminable deluge, everyone seems to agree that accelerated math programs should stick around. Why? For those who are passionate about math, of course. For those that want to learn ahead simply for the joy of knowing the Pythagorean theorem or the quadratic formula, for those who want to put in the extra effort for something they love. For those that, quite simply, just want to learn math.
When it comes to the question of “should we have accelerated math programs,” the answer is easy. Yes, if you know the material. No, if you don’t. It’s really that simple. Everyone seems to agree that there is no need to place an unnecessary amount of pressure on yourself for one math class, and there is no need to cram material into your head just to be in a so-called “better” math level.
So perhaps the question isn’t whether we need accelerated math programs, but rather when we should use them. Instead of being a question of knowledge, accelerated math should rather be a question of enthusiasm, of passion. Maybe when we see accelerated math as a way to enrich our passions rather than enrich our egos, maybe when we see accelerated math as a way of fulfillment rather than one of validation, then all the stress around it will disappear.
Maybe the deluge will end. Maybe instead of being a flood, it will turn into a drizzle.
Instead of mounting the ladder of accelerated math with fantasies of confidence and validation, we can mount it with hopes of learning new knowledge, having fun, and fulfilling your passions. And if we are fine as we are — already learning new knowledge, having fun, and fulfilling passions — then what is the point of climbing the ladder? Why take an unnecessary risk for an unattainable goal, when you know you are just as impassioned staying where you are? There’s no need to chase after the confidence and validation. There is no specific part of the ladder that is going to fill your heart, make you happy, or fulfill your passions. It varies vastly from person to person. Just climb until you are fulfilled and stop when you reach that perfect place. This is the ideal spot for you.
Sophie Hao attends the Pingry School in New Jersey and is interested in topics relating to social issues and moral justice. Aside from writing, she also enjoys public speaking, debate, and playing the flute.
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