Algebra scares many community college students, writes Sophie Quinton in National Journal. Two-thirds place into remedial math. Fewer than one in four who start below the college level earn a certificate or degree in eight years.
Arica Hawley used to dread math class. She would look at problems and not even know where to begin. When Hawley, 37, went back to Tacoma (Wash.) Community College last fall to finish her associate’s degree, she placed into a pre-algebra course—eighth-grade-level material.
Students who test two or three levels below Algebra II, which is considered college math, have to pass several remedial courses before they can start earning college credit. ”It eats up time and financial aid, especially when we have students who have to retake those courses three, four, and five times,” says John Kellermeier, a TCC math instructor.
Instead of remedial math, Hawley took Statway, a college-level statistics course for students who haven’t mastered high school math. She earned a college math credit.
The Carnegie Foundation developed two one-year courses — Statway and a quantitative-reasoning course called Quantway — to get students out of the remedial rut. Statway includes high school algebra and college-level statistics. Quantway starts with developmental math, but moves to college-level quantitative reasoning in the second semester.
Both courses allow faculty to teach algebra relevant to the college-level material, and to public debates and questions students will face in the workforce. In Statway, students learn to read graphs, determine probability, and detect bias in data. They brainstorm ways to prove or disprove theories, like the assertion by astrologers that birth dates determine personality traits.
Students are grouped into threes or fours and may stay in those groups throughout the course. The groups work through the material together every day, and are responsible for keeping each other up to speed.
. . . The courses also include exercises that address math anxiety. Many students believe they’re just not ‘math people.’ “If we don’t change how they see themselves, they’re going to realize a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Bernadine Chuck Fong, the director of Carnegie’s developmental math initiative.
Statway was launched in the fall of 2011 at 19 community colleges and two state universities. Fifty-one percent of students earned a college credit within a year, compared to 5.9 percent of community college students who start in remedial math.
Thirty campuses in 11 states now are implementing Statway and 22 are using Quantway.
Students do better when they believe they can succeed, feel that they belong in the classroom, and feel connected to their peers and teacher, says Fong.
Redesigning remedial math can improve community college completion rates, concludes Changing Equations. Pamela Burdman wrote the report for LearningWorks, an Oakland-based nonprofit. Some community colleges are stressing statistics and quantitative reasoning over intermediate algebra for non-STEM students.
Early results – including a dramatic jump from 6 to 51 percent in the proportion of students completing college-level math in their first year of college — are lending credence to the theory that the alternative pathways are better tailored to academic majors that don’t require intermediate algebra. About a quarter of California’s 112 community colleges, as well as numerous colleges in at least a dozen other states, have begun to develop these alternatives for non-STEM (science, technology, engineer, and math) students.
Intermediate algebra is a major barrier to graduation, the report finds. Most entering community college students place into remedial math. Eighty percent fail to complete the sequence and pass college-level math.
Half of Blacks and Latinos start community college with very weak math skills. Only 6 percent of students who place into the lowest remedial math level will pass a college-level math course within three years.
“We need to think hard about how remedial math sequences can best serve students who don’t want to become scientists or engineers,” says Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks.
California is accelerating remediation in math and English, but transfer policies are getting the way, reports Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed.
A faculty-led group called the California Acceleration Project has helped 42 of the state’s community colleges offer redesigned, faster versions of remedial math and English tracks. But the group’s co-founders said they would be able to make much more progress if the University of California changed its transfer credit requirements.
Myra Snell, a math professor at Los Medanos College, created Path2Stats to move remedial students quickly to college-level statistics. Her students “were more than four times as likely to complete college-level math as their peers in traditional remedial sequences,” writes Fain.
Currently 21 community colleges offer similar math courses.
But UC requires transfers to take intermediate algebra. Accelerated math doesn’t include enough algebra, according to UC.
Community college means a return to middle school for many students, writes Kenneth Terrell in The Atlantic, citing a recent National Center on Education and the Economy report on college and career readiness. “A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” said Marc Tucker, president of the NCEE.
NCEE randomly selected one community college in each of seven states, then examined eight of the most popular programs–accounting, automotive technology, biotech/electrical technology, business, criminal justice, early childhood education, information technology/computer programming, nursing, and the general education track. NCEE researchers examined the programs’ textbooks, assignments and exams to see what math and English skills truly were necessary to succeed.
While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.
Raising admission standards would exclude most would-be community college students. And for what purpose? Only a few “will ever need to use advanced math skills in college or the workplace,” according to NCEE, which equates requiring advanced algebra to requiring Latin. ”It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.
Javier Cabral made it through high school without passing algebra, but hit a wall in community college, he writes in Zócalo Public Square. He failed algebra seven times in 4 1/2 years at Pasadena City College and, finally, dropped out to pursue a writing career.
I coasted through middle school arithmetic classes, and, in high school pre-algebra, when math bit me in the rear, I bit back and weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher—who was having troubles with his wife at the time—how to play “Angel Baby” on the acoustic guitar. Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble.
Fast forward to my still Algebra-less senior year in high school. Without a passing grade in algebra, I couldn’t graduate—but I got lucky again. Apparently, my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the pristine record of my “California Distinguished” high school. The administrators decided to count Accounting I as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.
He hoped to transfer from PCC to a four-year institution, but was placed two classes below the transfer requirement class, Statistics 50. He failed. Eventually, Cabral was diagnosed with a math disability, which got him extra time on tests. That didn’t help. He tried computer-based pre-algebra and failed that. Finally, his counselor told him about an intensive new class, Exploring Topics in Mathematics, which would teach “quantitative literacy.” If he passed, he’d be eligible for transfer-level Statistics 50.
Before long, going to class started to feel like a family reunion. It was, dare I say it, fun. Everybody shared the pain, and there was a relieving sense of acceptance. (Professor Jay) Cho taught us how to complete linear equation problems, something that used to give me headaches, by relating them to blood alcohol levels when you drink and drive. (It worked. I got a B on that exam.) He used the almost-daily tardiness of the Goth girl to teach us relative frequency approximation of probability. I loved it. It was a modern-day version of Stand and Deliver.
Twenty of the 35 students passed the class, a high success rate for a developmental class. Cabral passed! Then he failed Statistics 50, also taught by Cho.
“Math is becoming a filter for a lot of people,” Cho told me recently. “Structurally, we are designed to lose a lot of students. The state gives us a lot of money for nothing. Returning students are forced to retake the class and shut out valuable space for new students.” In Cho’s view, his new teaching style addresses the problem. In my view, Cho’s an amazing teacher, but not a miracle worker.
Cabral doesn’t believe he’ll ever be able to solve quadratic equations, no matter how hard he tries. He wants to go to a university to “learn more about art, philosophy, literature, and history,” he writes. “Math requirements will prevent that. Should they?”
What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? Community colleges expect little of first-year students — and get even less, concludes the National Center on Education and The Economy.
The report paints a grim picture.
High school graduates have trouble reading textbooks written at the 11th- to 12th-grade level, so instructors provide study aids to help poor readers get by. Students do little writing. When they do write, ”instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims.”
Despite taking high school algebra, geometry and often advanced algebra, most students are placed in remedial math. They’re not prepared for “college math,” which amounts to “Algebra 1.25,” basic algebra with a bit of geometry and statistics. Yet what students most need to succeed in college courses is mastery of “middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations.”
Community colleges enroll 45 percent of U.S college students: About half hope to earn a bachelor’s degree, while the rest are pursuing a vocational credential, NCEE estimates.
It’s not enough for community colleges to raise expectations, the report concludes.
We need to bear in mind that a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. The nation may have to learn to walk before it runs, which means that it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up.
Common Core Standards, if implemented well, will help, eventually, the report concludes. But there’s a long way to go.
Researchers analyzed textbooks, tests, assignments, student work and grading at seven community colleges in different states. The study focused on general education and popular career programs: Accounting, Automotive Technology, Biotech/Electrical Technology, Business, Criminal Justice, Early Childhood Education, Information Technology/Computer Programming 1 and Nursing.
Only one program at one college required mastery of advanced algebra, the study found.
Increasingly, high schools are requiring students to take Algebra I, Geometry and Algebra II, with hopes they’ll make it to Calculus. That should be only one option, the report recommends.
Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so. . . . fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the (algebra to calculus) sequence in their college or in the workplace.
Students shouldn’t take algebra till they really understand middle-school math, the report advises. If they wait till 10th grade, that’s OK. They can study statistics, data analysis, applied geometry and/or mathematical modeling to prepare for a range of careers.
States should “build alternative math pathways through the last two years of high school that are aligned with student interests and career plans,” says Harvard Education Professor Robert Schwartz. “If the Report’s assertion is correct —that only 5 percent of jobs require the mathematics embodied in the calculus pathway —then our education system should focus more on the mathematics that most young people will actually use in their civic and work life, e.g. statistics, data, probability.”
However, the path to 12th-grade calculus usually starts with eighth-grade algebra. At 12 or 13, students would have to decide whether they’re aiming for a university degree in engineering or science. Imagine a STEM-prep track for 5 percent of students — or even 20 percent — with everyone else preparing for a low-tech university degree or a community college job training program. The future engineers and physicists are likely to predominantly Asian-American, white, middle class and male.
An all-day conference on the report will be livestreamed today starting at 9 am EDT.
During the recession, manufacturers laid off 2 million workers. Now some are hiring again, but 21st-century manufacturing jobs require math skills that many applicants lack, reports NPR.
North American Tool Corp.’s Jim Hoyt has two openings right now for his northwest Illinois company, and he expects to continue hiring. But he often sees the same problem crop up during the application process.
“I’ll write a few numbers down, mostly numbers with decimal points, because that’s what we use in manufacturing, and have them add them or subtract them, or divide by two,” Hoyt says. Job applicants often can’t do the math.
Most manufacturers use CNC, or computer numerical control, equipment. If the operator makes an error in calculation or input, it can crash the equipment, costing tens of thousands of dollars.
These days, many employers don’t want to teach the basics and risk damaging equipment. So students have turned to vocational programs at schools like the Richard J. Daley College on Chicago’s South Side to learn how to operate CNC machines.
Ray Prendergast, who directs the college’s manufacturing programs, says algebra and basic trigonometry are prerequisites. The college’s admissions testing measures entry-level proficiency. But Prendergast says, “The majority of students who come into my program are not at English 101, and they’re not at Math 118.”
So Daley College offers a remedial bridge program to qualify students for training in manufacturing.
“Our kids hate math” because they’re pushed to learn higher math before they’ve mastered the basics, writes Patrick Welsh, who teaches at T.C. Williams High in Virginia, in USA Today.
The experience of T.C. Williams teacher Gary Thomas, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, is emblematic of the problem. This year, Thomas had many students placed in his Algebra II class who slid by with D’s in Algebra I, failed the state’s Algebra I exam and were clueless when it came to the most basic pre-requisites for his course. “They get overwhelmed. Eventually they give up,” Thomas says.
Thirty-one percent of eighth-graders took algebra in 2007, nearly double the percentage compared to 1990, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In California, 54 percent take algebra in eighth grade. But many repeat it in ninth grade — and still do poorly.
My colleague Sally Miller . . . is the first to warn that too much math too soon is counterproductive. When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator. “In the lower grades, more time has to be devoted to practicing basic computational skills so that they are internalized and eventually come naturally.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s eighth-grade algebra classes have a ”negative effect on most students, especially those students who weren’t stellar in math background,” says Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor who studied the effects. Doing poorly “knocked them back on their heels.”
“It is time to ensure that all kids absorb the fundamentals of math — computation, fractions, percentages and decimals — first before moving on to the next level,” Welsh concludes.
A frightening number of students never learn math fundamentals. It’s the single greatest barrier to success in community colleges, which attract the un-stellar students. Students who’ve passed high school math classes — including a class called algebra — don’t understand fractions, percentages or decimals and can’t multiply 8 x 4 without a calculator.
Community colleges in Texas will adopt a radical redesign of developmental math, reports Inside Higher Ed. The Carnegie Foundation and the Dana Center at the University of Texas have developed Mathways, a new approach to helping community college students get up to speed in the math skills they’ll need to complete a credential.
. . . remedial students who intend on majoring in a science- or math-based field will still take a traditional, algebra-based developmental course. But other students might take classes in statistics or quantitative reasoning, subsets of math that could prove more relevant to their careers and present less of a barrier to emerging from remedial education. Students who are undecided on a major are likely to be steered toward statistics, with “bridge courses” available later on if they select a science or math major.
“Not having algebra doesn’t mean you haven’t had rigorous preparation,” said Rey Garcia, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “What’s the point of taking a course that isn’t going to be useful to you in your work life? As long as we maintain high standards for rigor, that pathway is as meaningful as an algebra-based pathway.”
Two Texas community colleges in El Paso and Houston have piloted Carnegie’s Statways. This fall, six or seven colleges will offer the statistics program and it’s expected to be at all 50 of the state’s community colleges by fall 2013.
The quantitative reasoning program and a reimagined algebra-based remediation will be rolled out in subsequent years, first in small batches and then statewide.
Here’s a Dana Center webinar on Mathways:
Remedial math is only the first barrier to success for California’s community college students. Only 55 percent of community college students passed college-level math courses in fall of 2010, concludes an EdSource analysis, Passing When It Counts. Forty-one percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanics passed.
At a minimum, degree-seeking students must pass Intermediate Algebra or demonstrate proficiency on a math placement test. Until two years ago, only elementary algebra was necessary.
At a recent conference of the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges, math instructors “discussed a range of strategies, including helping students understand math concepts rather than focusing on formulas, and tying math instruction more closely to the courses of study students are pursuing,” Edsource reports.
Said Santa Rosa Junior College student Jesse Cohen, who has tutored his fellow math students, “Students need more of the why, not only the how and the what.”
Barry Russell, the community colleges’ vice chancellor of academic affairs, said instruction should stress relevance.
. . . many (welding) students don’t understand that welding has a “huge of amount of trigonometry in it.” Math classes, he said, should feature examples specifically related to welding, as well as to other fields that involve math skills, from business to medicine. “If we’re going to require math, then making the connections is more of what we should be about,” Russell said.
Success rates in community college math courses vary significantly across the state: While 69 percent of students passed college math at Merritt College in Oakland, only 34 percent succeeded at West Hills College Coalinga.
Community college instructors are trying to move students quickly through developmental math, reading and writing courses through initiatives such as the California Acceleration Project. Redesigning remedial instruction may carry over to college-level classes.
Developmental summer bridge programs helped prepare low-skilled students for college in Texas, concludes the National Center for Postsecondary Research (NCPR) Teachers College. Compared to a control group, bridge participants at seven community colleges and one open-admissions university were more likely to take and pass college-level math and writing classes in the fall semester. Participants also attempted higher-level classes in reading, writing and math.
All developmental summer bridge programs had four common features: accelerated instruction in math, reading, and/or writing; academic support; a “college knowledge” component; and the opportunity for participants to receive a $400 stipend.
Program costs averaged about $1,300 per student but varied widely.
Most summer bridge students needed more remediation in the fall: 32 percent of summer bridge students passed college-level writing during their first semester of college compared with 27 percent of control group students. Only nine percent passed college-level math, which sounds dreadful but is more than twice the four percent pass rate for the control group.
Acceleration worked at Texas A&M International University (TAMIU), said Conchita Hickey, executive director of the University College.
Instead of just lecturing and doing problems on the board, we broke students into small groups with tutors, and we had a required, structured lab. A continuing observation from faculty over the years has been that the students who pass developmental math are the ones who do their homework. And so I think the lab that accompanies our program is key—the students are there and they don’t have an excuse not to do their homework.
. . . now I don’t even want to offer beginning algebra during our regular school year. We have begun piloting intermediate algebra alongside college algebra so students take them together in learning communities.
A significant percentage of bridge students skip one or two levels in just five weeks, said Hickey.
Had these students not participated, they might have had to start in beginning algebra, and then they would have had to do intermediate algebra and only then get to college algebra. And all of those different levels cost money, and they cost time.
Nationwide, six out of ten students entering community college need at least one remedial class and only 25 percent of these students ever go on to earn a college degree or credential.