Building new pathways to math success

May 6, 2015
Pamela Burdman

Pamela Burdman

Teachers and students across the state are adjusting to the Common Core standards, which promise to help more young people become ready for college. In the words of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, the standards represent “a unique opportunity to strengthen alignment across the divide between K-12 and post-secondary education in California.”

Kirst and other advocates of the new standards were motivated to support them, in part, by sobering data showing that a large proportion of high school graduates require remedial courses when they go to college. In math, for example, about 85 percent of community college students and about a third of California State University students confront at least one remedial course.

A chief goal of the new standards is to reduce those rates by ensuring that more students finish high school with the knowledge and skills that colleges expect. The standards, however, assume colleges’ expectations are static. In fact, as a new policy report by LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education that I authored reveals, those expectations are shifting as colleges and universities seek to make their remedial math programs more effective.

Therefore there may be a mismatch between the math students are being taught in high school based on the Common Core and new curricular innovations being implemented at the higher education level.

What is happening is that dozens of community colleges in California are offering a subset of their students alternative remedial math sequences that emphasize statistics preparation, while the Common Core math standards place a priority on algebra.

In the typical scenario, students take two years of algebra during high school that ideally prepares them for college-level math courses required to earn a four-year degree. In reality, many students end up taking one or both as remedial courses during college, based on their scores on placement tests.

Algebra 2 is a graduation requirement for students pursuing an associate degree. Community college students seeking to transfer to four-year universities must also show proficiency in Algebra 2 on a placement test, or take a remedial class, before they can enroll in a college-level course required to transfer to a four-year university.

Designed for community college students pursuing non-technical majors, the new math pathways place a greater priority on preparation in statistics and quantitative reasoning than in the traditional algebra-intensive course sequence.

The alternative approaches are growing rapidly in community colleges. That’s in part because of promising early results, showing that students who attempt the new sequences are three to four times as likely to pass a college-level math course, such as Statistics, as students enroll in traditional remedial courses.

It’s also because, while two years of algebra courses provide direct preparation for science and engineering majors, applied math courses such as Statistics are more relevant for students in many other academic fields, including the social sciences.

Requiring every student to demonstrate proficiency in Algebra 2 via remedial courses increasingly strikes community college leaders as unnecessary, unwise, and unfair – particularly since evidence shows that the vast majority of students required to take remedial math courses never complete college.

It’s not just community college standards that are starting to shift. Both the CSU and University of California systems are entertaining new approaches, acknowledging the case for basing students’ math requirements on their academic and career goals. UC’s admissions committee recently approved a two-course alternative remedial sequence (including a pre-statistics course and a college-level statistics course) for community college students seeking to transfer, despite the program’s relatively slim algebra content.

And some CSU campuses have reduced the amount of algebra students placed into remedial math courses must study before enrolling in college-level courses such as Introductory Statistics.

What do these changes mean about college readiness for California’s high school students? For admission to UC and CSU, students still need the equivalent of two years of algebra in high school. And despite its practical emphasis on developing mathematical maturity and sense-making, Common Core math includes a healthy dose of Algebra 1 and 2.

For now, the idea of expanding the Common Core standards to include an alternative course pathway at the high school level is a sensitive one. U.S. students don’t choose majors until they are in college, and educators are understandably wary of limiting students’ options by letting them graduate from high school with fewer than two years of algebra. But the traditional practice has also limited high school students’ options, because many struggle with algebra, especially Algebra 2.

The new standards promise to change that, by ensuring that more students succeed in high school math, not just passing courses but actually understanding the mathematical ideas. But K-12 education reformers could learn from new programs at the college level that suggest that for all students to succeed there may need to be more than one pathway through mathematics.

Pamela Burdman is a Berkeley-based higher education policy analyst and a former program officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Her latest publication is DEGREES OF FREEDOM: Varying Routes to Math Readiness and the Challenge of Intersegmental Alignment.

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