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Diane Sanders This question has interesting phrasing. "Opportunity" - always.

. They have to do what James suggests - strengthen the basics. Math skills being "weak" - I have found poor grades can sometimes reflect mere laziness - a preponderance of careless errors. "complicated topics" - Visual or mechanical/procedural learners are sometimes surprising - someone who can't calculate correctly trig functions can memorize the shape of the curves and answer qualitative questions well, and vice versa. But the key word you use is "master". I wouldn't say merely remembering procedures or formulas or shapes of curves is mastery, even if it leads to a high score when tested. No, complicated topics won't be mastered without strong fundamentals. But barring a learning deficiency, one always has the opportunity to master the fundamentals and build from there. Doug Hainline We need to analyze the original question and unpack its intended meanings. (1) By 'a student' is meant, presumably, 'any student', or 'all students'. That is, no exceptions. (2) By 'cannot', is implied, the student has tried very hard, has had a good teacher, but due to some internal reason - e.g. low IQ -- is unable to master basic skills. Several people here have argued that they personally know of exceptions. Assuming that these exceptions fit the second 'unpacking' above (2) -- that is, they are actually unable to master certain basic mathematical skills, but can master others -- then that would seem to close the discussion, assuming that (1) was meant. If however, the question was meant to be something like a weaker variant, e.g. "Is it generally the case that a student who has not (for whatever reason) mastered basic skills, will not master advanced ones", then probably most of us would assent. Dave Hinz What comprises basic math skills? I had students who did not know their multiplication tables in high school. They could get around that shortcoming by using a calculator, although they still had to understand hierarchy of operations. These same students had difficulty comparing fractions because they could not find the LCM. They could convert the fractions to decimals and compare them, again, using the calculator. I think these students had more difficulty with all math topics beyond basic such as exponents, scientific notation, lines, slopes and inverses. Factoring polynomials is easier if you know the multiplication tables. That may be the key. They can probably "master" more complex areas of math but it will be harder and it will take them much longer. That may be enough for them to give up trying. What is mastering? You can load data into a program and perform statistical analysis with little knowledge of math. Do you understand the output? You can find roots of polynomials and solve series of linear equations with matrices using graphing calculators. This is not mastering, but it may be adequate for many business requirements.