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Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II.
That’s the usual three-year sequence of high school math courses for students who want to attend one of the 23 campuses in the California State University system.
But now that list may grow by one. In a controversial move, the CSU is considering requiring a fourth year of high school math of all freshmen applicants. The extra year-long course could be the traditional calculus or more practical alternatives such as statistics, computer science or personal finance, administrators say.
Whatever the courses, advocates say that requiring four years of high school math will make more students ready to tackle mandatory college math courses and improve CSU’s graduation rates.
But critics say they fear the possible harmful impact on underprepared students in low-income and high schools already struggling to find enough math teachers. Skeptics say the change could shut the door to the nation’s largest public university system for some students who don’t have access to 12 grade math classses or the skills to complete them.
Some form of the plan may be introduced for discussion at the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in May, with a vote possibly scheduled at a future session, officials said. If approved, it likely would not take effect until 2025 or so, to allow school districts and families time to get ready, according to CSU administrators. After all, the CSU’s size is enormous: it enrolls about 428,000 undergraduates, including about 90,000 freshman.
Among the plan’s supporters is CSU trustee Christopher J. Steinhauser, who is also superintendent of Long Beach Unified School District. His district already requires four years of math, which can include computer science or statistics courses, for high school graduation. That’s a higher standard than most other California districts.
Despite his initial misgivings, that change has benefited many students by increasing CSU and UC eligibility from 39 percent of the district’s graduates four years ago to 56 percent last year.
Steinhauser said he expects schools and students around the state will rise to the occasion if CSU ups its math requirement. CSU should “set high standards and work with K-12 to meet those standards. I just know this will end the opportunity gap that exists in our state so our students can achieve the American Dream,” he said. Even students not heading to college will have better skills for various trades and professions, he added.
In addition, the proposal would bolster other CSU reforms, advocates say. The system recently ended no-credit remedial math and English courses for underprepared students and replaced those with credit-bearing classes that provide extra time and tutoring. More high school math would help more students pass introductory college math, they say.
“As is the case with a second language, mathematical skills decline from lack of use, and it is important that students continue practicing and developing quantitative abilities throughout their academic careers,” declared a seminal 2016 report by the CSU Academic Senate’s Quantitative Reasoning Task Force. That panel recommended adding the high school course yet recognized the change “is an ambitious endeavor — one that will take time, collaboration, resources and most importantly an attention to equity.”
More than two years later, a detailed plan may be unveiled soon. Critics are not waiting.
At the CSU trustees’ March meeting and elsewhere, college access and civil rights organizations have warned the additional requirement could disproportionately hurt youngsters of color in under-resourced high schools that don’t offer a fourth year of math. Too many are at a disadvantage from poor math classes in middle school and not enough counseling in high school, they say. And where, they ask, are all the extra math teachers?
After a string of such speakers, CSU trustee Peter Taylor, who chairs the educational policy committee, publicly told university staff that the possible change “elicits a lot of passion. A lot of people have a lot of concerns. So I hope and I trust you will go about this very carefully, very diligently.”
Among the organizations raising objections is Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the civil rights group headquartered in Los Angeles. “Unless those disparities and discriminatory effects are fully addressed before its implementation, then we have a major problem,” MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz told EdSource. He said he doubts that six years is enough time to fix those problems and that MALDEF would consider legal action if CSU moves too quickly.
Similarly, the Campaign for College Opportunity, a policy and advocacy organization in Los Angeles, issued a protest letter. “At a time when California continues to be plagued by wide racial/ethnic gaps in enrollment and success at public four-year universities, our higher education systems must ensure that policies do not unfairly create unnecessary obstacles for students on the way to earning a college degree,” said the letter from the campaign’s president, Michele Siqueiros.
At the trustees’ meeting, Loren Blanchard, the CSU’s executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs, said he would take into account the critics’ views. While he did not answer point for point, he suggested that many high schools already have courses such as business math, health statistics and computer science and won’t need more faculty.
Now both CSU and the ten-campus University of California system require three years of math and recommend four as part of the so-called A-G courses that make a student with the right grades eligible for admission, although not necessarily at very competitive campuses. State statistics show that about a half of California high school graduates meet all the A-G course requirements for entrance into CSU and UC.
UC is not considering adding a mandatory fourth math year, according to UC Riverside professor Eddie Comeaux, chairman of the board that sets UC admissions standards. Opponents say a CSU change out of step from UC will confuse applicants and families. Plus, some wonder whether a student might be able to take two math courses concurrently during senior year in an effort to cover a gap.
However, advocates of the 4th year of math say many students and CSU applicants already are taking the extra course that goes beyond the three required on the A-G list.
About 75 percent of California’s 12th-graders took a math class in 2016 and about 87 percent of the CSU applicants did in 2016, according to preliminary research by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), a nonprofit research organization affiliated with several universities. It is likely that nearly all of those seniors were taking their fourth consecutive year of math, said Michal Kurlaender, a UC Davis education policy professor who is PACE faculty director.
But she noted that the patterns during 12th grade were unevenly distributed among schools and ethnic groups. At about 3 percent of high schools, less than 25 percent of seniors were in any math and at 20 percent of schools, 90 percent or more were. Asian high school seniors showed the highest math-taking rate, about 85 percent, compared to 75 percent of Latinos, 74 percent African Americans and 72 percent whites, her research showed. Still under study are 12th-grade math-taking rates for low-income populations and urban, suburban and rural schools.
Kurlaender said there is strong evidence that more preparation across all four years of high school increases college success. Still, she said she worries “that certain students and certain students who attend certain schools will feel the policy more than others.” Even if high schools find enough extra teachers, some otherwise eligible students may be reluctant to take the courses and thereby shut themselves out of CSU, she said.
Some California high schools already are trying to provide new types of 12th-grade math to keep students engaged and on the college track.
A recent study by WestEd, a San Francisco-based education research and training nonprofit, tracked partnerships among five California public university campuses and various high schools to develop new 12th-grade courses for students who otherwise might have fallen off the math track because they feared calculus. Funded in a competition for state grants, these new courses include a data science course and a wide-ranging one called “Transition to College Level Mathematics.” The report said it was too early to call those efforts a long-term success but noted favorable feedback from teachers and students.
Report co-author Neal Finkelstein, a WestEd senior research scientist, declined to express an opinion about CSU’s math requirement. He said the same goals might be achieved if all high schools mandated four years of math for a diploma. (The state now requires only two years of math but allows districts to set higher standards. Efforts to raise statewide standards have failed.)
Keeping up math skills “is quite productive for students whether they go to the CSU, community college or the workforce,” Finkelstein said.
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