Gov. Brown proposes competition to create new high school math course

February 17, 2016

Tucked inside Gov. Jerry Brown’s projected 2016-17 budget is a proposal for an unusual state-funded competition to address a long-standing challenge facing high school seniors: getting them better prepared for college-level math.

Brown is proposing spending $3 million for a competition to develop a year-long math course that is closely aligned with the California State University’s expectations for incoming freshmen, and will help students avoid having to take remedial classes when they get there.

In higher education circles, educators increasingly refer to these classes as “developmental classes,” in part to remove the stigma that may be associated with the “remedial” label.

The governor’s budget proposal noted that a high school course already exists to better prepare students for college-level English – the Expository Reading and Writing Course – which is now being taught in most high schools in the state.

Neal Finkelstein, a senior research scientist at WestEd, a research and policy organization in San Francisco, said the lack of an equivalent 12th-grade college preparatory math class is “an ongoing concern that a lot of us in the math community have.”

Such a course was also a focus of a meeting with K-12 representatives and all three systems of public higher education convened last fall by LearningWorks, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to improving student success. A soon-to-be released set of recommendations based on the meeting and written by policy analyst Pamela Burdman, states that “all high school students should have the opportunity to take the courses they need to be prepared for college-level work at any of California’s higher education institutions.” This should include students “who need to strengthen their quantitative reasoning skills in order to be considered college-ready.”

The additional high school course would mesh with the Common Core State Standards, which envisage a three-year sequence of math courses but also strongly recommend a fourth year, without specifying what that fourth-year course should be.

CSU faces a persistent challenge of having to provide developmental classes for incoming freshmen. In the most recent CSU freshman class, for example, 25,000 students, or almost half of the incoming class, were required to start their math or English remedial work during the summer before they enrolled through CSU’s Early Start program.

The Expository Reading and Writing Course, often referred to by its acronym ERWC, was created in 2003 and has been the subject of considerable research indicating that it has made a difference in preparing students for college-level English.

“Students who enrolled in the Expository Reading and Writing Course scored higher on the English Placement test and the difference was statistically significant,” an evaluation of the English course conducted by Finkelstein and four other WestEd researchers concluded.

A 2013 study by Jennifer McCormick and two other CSU researchers concluded that the course “helped student engagement, motivation, and learning and helped prepare students for college.”

Currently the English course is offered in more than 800 high schools, reaching approximately 80,000 students.

A major element of the course is extensive training offered to teachers who will be teaching it. Some 13,000 teachers have attended workshops offered across the state. The CSU researchers found that teachers who attended those workshops “reported making numerous changes and improvements in their teaching.”

Before last year, CSU’s Early Assessment Program used an augmented form of the state standards tests in math and English to determine the likelihood of students being be ready for college-level math and English. Currently, performance on the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced assessments, which were introduced in the spring of 2015 and are aligned with the Common Core standards in math and English language arts, is used to assess students’ readiness.

Students who voluntarily participated in the Early Assessment Program and earned a “conditionally ready” score – one rung below the “college ready” ranking – were encouraged to take the Expository Reading and Writing Course. Students who get a C grade or better in the writing and reading course are then deemed to be ready for college-level English without having to take CSU’s placement test.

Similarly, the new math course would target students with comparable ability in math who have passed Algebra 2, which is required to gain admission to CSU and UC, and who scored “conditionally ready” on the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Students who tested “not ready” could take it, too, although, regardless how they did in the course, they would still have to take a CSU math placement exam to determine whether they should take a developmental summer course, said Ken O’Donnell, a senior administrator in the CSU chancellor’s office. The course will be designed so that even students who scored at a “college ready” level on the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test would benefit from taking it, he said.

In particular, the new math course could help students master Algebra 2. WestEd’s Finkelstein noted that Algebra 2 is a hard, discouraging experience for many students in the 11th grade, leading them to abandon math entirely after taking the class. He estimates that 30 percent of students don’t take any math in the 12th grade. Other estimates put that figure as high as 40 percent. That means that large numbers of students are likely to arrive in college unprepared for college-level math, and that they will have to take developmental classes to catch up. It might also disqualify them altogether from admission to most UC campuses.

Finkelstein said his hope is that students would not leave high school thinking a range of academic or career options is closed to them in college because they did not do well in math. The 12th-grade course should enable a student to start college with a clean slate, be ready with technical fluency in the subject and have a mindset for math and quantitative work in general. To achieve that goal, he said, the new 12th-grade math course should be engaging and filled with practical applications of math concepts. Teachers would have to be well-trained in the curriculum.

Finkelstein said the course could prompt CSU to rethink what math skills students who are not intending to enroll in math-intensive courses of study need to know to enter college. The course, he said, provides an opportunity to “experiment with math content for high school seniors” and to reassess the overall sequence of math courses in high schools.

Similarly, in the recommendations to be published by LearningWorks, Burdman said the state should encourage “innovation and experimentation” in the development of these courses, which seems to be the goal of the competition Brown is proposing.

Louis Freedberg and John Fensterwald contributed to this story.

Correction:  Due to an editing error, the original version of this story indicated that 7,000 teachers had attended ERWC.  The correct number is 13,000.

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