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Thursday, January 26, 2006

What's in a name?

Does the name of a course matter? At Weston High School we recently renamed our two-year college-prep precalculus sequence. The first course, taken primarily by juniors but always including a few seniors, used to be called Math 4. What does “Math 4” mean? Not much, actually. Back in the good old days, students didn’t take Algebra I in eighth grade as they do now. So the first math course in high school was naturally called Math 1. Then Geometry was called Math 2, Algebra II Math 3, and Precalculus Math 4. These uninformative names were logical and sequential.

Then Algebra I was pushed into the Middle School, and Precalculus was split into two years. Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II were given more informative names: Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II. But they were followed, of course, by Math 4 and Math 5.

An unfortunate side-effect was that many students elected not to take Math 5, since it didn’t appear to be the second half of a two-year sequence. And several of us found those names uninformative, to say the least. Not that “Precalculus” is a perfect name, since it tells you almost nothing about the course itself. All it tells you is that it prepares for calculus — in other words, it tells you something about the next course, not about the precalculus course. Nevertheless, it’s better than Math 4 and Math 5. So we have just changed the names of this two-year sequence. The old Math 4 is now called Precalculus, Part One; the old Math 5 is now called Precalculus, Part Two, with Statistics — since it not only finishes Precalculus but also includes a hefty dose of statistics. We are hoping that students who are looking for a strong preparation for calculus will realize that they ought to take both courses of this two-year sequence.

In the honors sequence, by the way, the two courses (except for the stats component) are combined into a single year, the course formerly know as Math 4 Honors (as you would expect). It’s now denoted by a strange symbol — no, that’s not right, it’s now called Precalculus, Honors.

And does it make any difference? I’m hoping so...

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