Information Brief 2014-4

ACT National Curriculum Survey®: College Mathematics Instructors’ Ratings of Topics as Prerequisites for Their Courses

Ranking of the 20 Topics Rated Most Important as Prerequisites by Instructors of Credit-Bearing First-Year College Mathematics Courses

RankTopicTypically taught in
1Evaluate algebraic expressionsAlgebra I
2Perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division on signed rational numbersgrade 7 or earlier
3Solve linear equations in one variableAlgebra I
4Solve multistep arithmetic problemsgrade 7 or earlier
5Locate points on the number linegrade 7 or earlier
6Perform operations (add, subtract, multiply) on linear expressionsAlgebra I
7Find the slope of a lineAlgebra I
8Find equivalent fractionsgrade 7 or earlier
9Find and use multiples and factorsgrade 7 or earlier
10Perform operations (add, subtract, multiply) on polynomialsAlgebra I
11Locate points in the coordinate planegrade 7 or earlier
12Write expressions, equations, or inequalities to represent mathematical and real-world settingsAlgebra I
13Evaluate functions at a given value of xAlgebra I
14Graph linear equations in two variablesAlgebra I
15Order rational numbersgrade 7 or earlier
16Determine the absolute value of rational numbersgrade 7 or earlier
17Manipulate equations and inequalities to highlight a specific unknownAlgebra I
18Manipulate expressions containing rational exponentsAlgebra II
19Solve linear inequalities in one variableAlgebra I
20Solve problems using ratios and proportionsgrade 7 or earlier

Note: These results are described in terms of a traditional math course sequence, but they apply equally well to an integrated math sequence.

The table shows the 20 topics rated most important as prerequisites by instructors of credit-bearing first-year college mathematics courses in the 2012 ACT National Curriculum Survey.1 Nine—or 45%—of the topics are typically covered in grade 7 or earlier, while 10 are topics from Algebra I. The one remaining topic is typically taught in Algebra II.

This finding suggests that an important contributor to students’ college and career readiness is the ability of teachers throughout K–12 to keep strengthening many of the topics students learn in earlier grades as well as to develop connections, deepen understanding, or increase fluency. It’s said that students don’t learn the skills from one mathematics course until they take the next. It’s not enough for students to stay at the same level.


1 ACT, Inc., ACT National Curriculum Survey 2012: Mathematics (Iowa City, IA: Author, 2013). http://www.act.org/research/policymakers/pdf/NCS-Mathematics.pdf.


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