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Middle School Success Series: Math

The change from Middle School to High School can often be a jarring one. The increased academic rigor, shift in social dynamics, and general mentality of “everything you do actually matters now” can create a lot of pressure for students who are moving into their Freshmen year.  While the shift itself is an unavoidable one, there are many ways to start preparing now in order to minimize the adjustment and equip yourself for success. Last time we looked at the importance of expanding one’s reading foundations. This time we’re going to take a look at math.


Get Your Math On

High School Math is unique among academic subjects in that its progression is not only highly linear, but also offers the greatest opportunity for acceleration. This means that ambitious students can stand out by taking more advanced math at an earlier age. This, in turn, translates to a couple priorities when evaluating your child’s current math performance:


  • Know your high school curriculum and prerequisites: Each school has their own math advancement track. The upper limit for 9th grade is usually Algebra II or an equivalent. Inquire about entry requirements, figure out which class you want to be taking your Senior Year, and plan backwards from there. This is especially important if you are considering transferring (If your child attends Nishimachi, for example, it is best to know how 8th grade math translates to your child’s new school).
  • Know your options: Many schools offer placement or test-out options when entering 9th grade. What this means is that where you start in 9th grade isn’t necessarily directly tied to where you finished in 8th grade. Inquire and see what options your high school provides because that should inform you how to…
  • Use your summer and plan ahead: Placement and test out options mean that (if the school allows it) a student could finish Algebra I in 8th grade, study Geometry over the summer, and then test into Algebra II to start their high school career. This eliminates the need to try to take double math during freshman year and ensures your child is on the most competitive track going forward.


Get Back to Basics

One of the opportunities that we have as tutors is that we can often see where student learning is potentially not aligned with the skills they will need. In math, many of the skills are fundamentals that they should be mastering in middle school. Here are two simple tips to help middle school students get back to the basics:


  • Ditch the calculator: Mental math is a constant struggle for many high school students, in part because they have been trained to always and immediately refer to the reassurance that a calculator provides. This breaks them out of the habit of having to show their work because it is now just a series of inputs. This prevents them from wrestling with their math, which normally leads to greater retention and understanding. We’ve seen tremendous struggles with the non-calculator section of the SAT, while on the calculator sections of the both the SAT and ACT, students with strong mental math have consistently finished faster and with higher accuracy. The strong spatial abilities required for mental math have proven to be directly tied to mathematical success; Help students develop this by taking away their calculator when appropriate.  


  • Do lots (and lots [and lots]) of word problems: Translating English to math has become the bane of many a math student’s existence. In high school, students can expect to see problems like this: 


Source: SAT Official Practice Test #8


The actual math involved here is simple 8th grade-level inequalities, but the challenge comes from taking all those words and turning them into an equation. Most math textbooks include a wide array of word problems, but students are often only asked to do some of them. Do all of them. And then find more and do those. If your child already attends Tokyo Academics for math, ask for word problems for homework. The more practice a student receives, the more capable they will be at seeing the relationships between the words and the math.

The answer to the above is 25,000 < (4,334 – 2,712)t


  • Practice with a plan: Like reading or exercise or language, math skills grow with repeated use. Some of my younger students know that Monday is multiplication day for them and Fridays are for fractions. The exercises aren’t long, maybe 15-20 minutes, but it makes math a regularly scheduled part of their week on top of their homework. Make sure that this practice is timed since speed is key – Understanding concepts is only one part to content mastery. You have only achieved content mastery once you can move through problems swiftly without hesitation. Concepts need to be practiced until they become second-nature. This is especially true with core math fundamentals which will be built upon in high school.


That’s it! Preparing for high school level math is a combination of staying informed and staying disciplined. Tokyo Academics is always available for additional resources and guidance as well.

Next week we will look closer at how to improve middle school student writing so stay tuned!