Program lightens the load on students and strengthens ties with regional high schools
Two years ago, when Doron Levy served as the undergraduate chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Mathematics, he had a question: Why not let the most advanced high school students take the final exam for second-year college math courses? If they pass and then enroll at UMD, they could earn credits for the course and the grade could be registered on their transcript.
Advanced Placement exams already enable high school students to earn credits for freshman-level calculus I and II (MATH 140 and MATH 141). But Levy knew that students enrolled in STEM magnet schools, international baccalaureate programs and accelerated math programs often exceed that level before their junior year. Some even take multivariable calculus and linear algebra, both college sophomore-level subjects, before graduating high school. But very few colleges and universities allow students to start as freshmen with such advanced standing.
Levy, who became chair of the department in 2019, thought partnering with schools to allow credit by exam would not only benefit students, but open opportunities for recruitment. He and Mathematics Professor Lawrence Washington reached out to high schools in the region and worked with the college administration to get the ball rolling. Since then, 273 high school students have taken a mathematics exam for UMD course credit and nearly three dozen are now enrolled at UMD.
“The program has been extremely successful on many fronts,” Levy said. “It required the schools to align their curriculum to ours, which has made for a very smooth transition for students, and it has already attracted a remarkable cohort of students to Maryland.”
Of the 148 high school students who took the MATH 241: Calculus III exam in 2019, 120 passed, 35 enrolled at UMD and six are current mathematics majors. In 2020, the department added an exam for MATH 240: Linear Algebra. In total, 125 high school students took one of the two exams offered, and 112 passed. Levy expects many of them will choose to come to UMD when they graduate.
Four schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, currently participate in the “credit by exam” program—Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, Poolesville High School in Poolesville and Georgetown Preparatory School in Bethesda. Teachers from these schools received mentoring from UMD faculty and access to previous exams through the math department’s test bank.
The exams students take are selected from previous years’ unused alternate exams, which are held in the department under lock and key for administering to students who are unable to take their finals at the designated time. Using one of these exams ensures that students who earn credit by exam are on an equal footing with their peers.
“Many students have commented to me afterward that they didn't really believe me when I said they're succeeding in a college course, but their comfort and success with UMD's exam drove it home,” said Jeremy Schwartz, a teacher in the Mathematics and Computer Science Magnet Program at Montgomery Blair High School. “These students are more confident about soon navigating the transition from high school into college.”
Ensuring the alignment of high school curricula with UMD’s math program has multiple benefits.
“There is always this disconnect between what high schools think students need to know and what we think they need to know,” Washington said. "And this helps get everyone on the same page. But also, some of these really advanced students, like physics majors and engineering majors, have so many credits proscribed in advance, anything that eases the course load and frees them up for electives can give them a real advantage. And that’s a great recruiting and marketing tool for us.”
Schwartz said his students see credit by exam as a way to fit more advanced courses into their schedule when they get to college.
“Many of our students are chomping at the bit to dig into higher- level college courses,” he said. “In effect, these students don't cut a class out of their requirements. They replace Calc 3 with a higher-level course. For those in math, they more quickly get to the real ‘meat’ of their math major. For those in related fields, this allows them an additional space in their schedule for their primary passion.”
According to Levy, colleges across the country have waived their multivariable calculus course requirement for students who passed the UMD exam, and that benefits more than just the students.
“The program has been very successful in making our department and university visible to the outside world,” Levy said. “Major schools throughout the country have recognized our unique approach to encouraging top talent.”
Levy plans to expand the program in the future by offering it to all Maryland high schools and possibly schools in the District of Columbia that teach advanced math classes.
Written by Kimbra Cutlip