College student at whiteboard solving math problem by Jeremy Wilburn

Photo by Jeremy Wilburn

Virginia is implementing a new approach to math instruction that offers possible lessons for California, where large numbers of students arrive without the preparation needed to take courses they can use to transfer to a four-year college.

During the coming academic year, all 23 colleges in the Virginia Community College System will tackle the challenge of getting students up to speed in math more quickly, as described by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The goal in Virginia will be for liberal arts students and those on a technical career path to complete any extra math preparation they might need—often called developmental math—in a single semester. Students in fields requiring more math background before enrolling in college-level courses will be expected to do so in a single year. To do this:

  • Colleges will offer a sequence of math courses in the form of nine one-unit modules rather than semester-length courses. The modules will focus on math content ranging from fractions to quadratic equations.
  • Students will take only those modules that focus on math content they still need to learn. This is in contrast to traditional math courses, in which students typically spend a full semester even if it includes some material they already know.
  • Students will take only those modules required for a particular course of study. Liberal arts students who need extra help will only be required to fulfill the first five modules. Science, engineering, math, and business administration students will be required to fulfill all nine. And the requirements for career-technical students will vary by program. Students will take extra modules, if needed, only if they change their program of study.

The approach is significantly different from how community colleges typically tackle the problem. Colleges usually place unprepared students in a sequence of semester-length math courses, after assessing students to determine where in the sequence they should start.

In California, these sequences generally have three or four levels such as Arithmetic, Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra, and Intermediate Algebra. California students must complete Intermediate Algebra to get an associate degree and to qualify for higher-level math courses they can count toward transfer to the California State University or the University of California.

But these sequences have a downside: the more levels students must complete before taking a math course that counts toward an associate’s degree or for transfer to UC or CSU, the longer it will take them to get there—and the smaller their chances of ever doing so. For example, a recent EdSource study found that only 16% of first-time students in California who started in Pre-Algebra later completed a course beyond Intermediate Algebra.

In an August 2010 report, the Virginia system’s Developmental Mathematics Redesign Team argues that “[s]imply tweaking what is in place is not enough” to address the problem.

Instead, Virginia’s redesign suggests the following:

  • Semester-length courses need not be the standard method for providing math instruction leading to college-level courses.
  • Students spend no more than a single year in these more basic courses.
  • Colleges should focus on helping students build the math skills and knowledge they need to pursue a particular program of study, not recreate a course sequence similar to what students may have taken in the middle grades or high school.

The Virginia and California systems differ in important ways, including the fact that the highly decentralized California system has nearly five times as many colleges. But the Virginia redesign team’s August 2010 report and subsequent 2011 curriculum guide are worth a close look for the guideposts they could provide for California’s vast community college system.

Jargon Made Easy

In the vigorous national discussion about how to ensure more community college students achieve their academic and career goals, the term “developmental mathematics” refers to the sequences of courses or modules that colleges use to provide unprepared students with the prerequisite skills and understanding they need to enroll in college-level courses.

The California Community Colleges also offer course sequences for this purpose. But the boundary between “developmental math” and “college-level math” is blurry because California has more than one definition of which math courses are “college-level,” depending on a student’s academic goal.

Here are the key terms used in California to define which math courses count for which purposes.

  • Transfer level: These are math courses that students can count toward transfer to the University of California (UC) and/or the California State University (CSU), such as Calculus.
  • Degree applicable:These are math courses that students can count toward an associate degree.Importantly, not all math courses that count toward an associate degree also count toward transfer to UC or CSU. For example, Intermediate Algebra counts toward an associate degree but not toward transfer. Thus, Intermediate Algebra is a college-level course for the purpose of completing an associate degree, but is not college-level for the purpose of transfer to UC or CSU.
  • Basic skills: These are math courses, such as Arithmetic, that students cannot count toward either an associate degree or transfer.

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  1. Bill 9 years ago9 years ago

    First of all I thin to state that Intermeidate algebra is applicable to an associates degree but not a 4 year degree is correct. The California requirement is that you must show high school level proficiency at math (and English too) and one way of doing this is to complete intermediate algebra. Those credits would not apply to the degree but just to showing proficieny. For example, is a student tests out … Read More

    First of all I thin to state that Intermeidate algebra is applicable to an associates degree but not a 4 year degree is correct. The California requirement is that you must show high school level proficiency at math (and English too) and one way of doing this is to complete intermediate algebra. Those credits would not apply to the degree but just to showing proficieny. For example, is a student tests out of Intermediate Algebra he would not need those 3 or 4 or 5 credits. He could go to take courses to complete his AA. If a student didn’t test out he would take the same credits as the first student for his AA but also the credits to show High School level proficiency in math; i.e. the Intermediate algebra credits.

    There is one major flaw to this approach. All studnets need to be at intermediate algebra before taking a college level course and the new K – 12 standards specify that this level of mathematics is required for “college and career” readiness.

    If students enter a course with less than intermediate algebra the course probably is not at what would be considered “college level” by most four year colleges. There is no “shortcut” to math proficiency, the only way to “ease” up on studnets not proficient is to lower standards. to do so discounts the value of a higher education degree.

    And if you read the California standard while it may help some to skip areas where they are proficient to suggest that some students would meet the Intermediate Algebra condtion because some Pseudo-college level course only might require five of the nine modules still does not meet the California requirement that all graduates of 2 year programs in California must be proficient at the high school level.

    As is the case most of these “creative” programs aren’t talking about learning and achievement but rather relaxing standards.

  2. Joan Brownstein 9 years ago9 years ago

    Why isn’t math taught as it is in many other parts of the world as four strands beginning in kindergarten? In that sequence, algebra, trig, calculus, etc are taught every year at a different level so that it is an integral part of a student’s knowledge of math. Teaching it in a discreet year makes no sense educationally.