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Despite High School Algebra Focus, More Students Need Remedial College Math

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Deb Kollars, Sacramento Bee, May 12, 2008

Five years ago, California took a bold step and began requiring algebra of every graduating high school senior. The grumbling ran deep. The work was hard. The underlying equation came through loud and clear: More math in high school would equal more students prepared for college.

For many, it hasn't added up.

In a pattern that has area math professors scratching their heads, some community colleges are seeing an increase in the numbers and proportions of entering students who can't do algebra, or even basic arithmetic.

At Sierra College in Rocklin, for example, of the 199 sections of math being taught this year, 68 of them 34 percent are arithmetic, pre-algebra or beginning algebra. Most students seeking a two-year or four-year degree must master those levels of math and in many cases go beyond.

Five years ago, the percentage of remedial math courses at Sierra was 28 percent.

Last year at Cosumnes River College in Elk Grove, 40.8 percent of incoming students who took a math placement exam tested into arithmetic or pre-algebra, up from 38.1 percent two years earlier. The proportion of courses in beginning algebra, pre-algebra and arithmetic at Cosumnes has marched steadily upward, from 43 percent in 2003 to almost 52 percent this year.

"It's the million-dollar question," said Mary Martin, math department chair at Cosumnes. "We are asking more of our high school students, so why isn't it transferring over to college?"

Response falls short

California high schools have responded to the monumental task of getting students through algebra, Martin and other math professors say, but the push is falling short.

It has educators concerned because algebra is considered a key subject for developing critical thinking skills. It provides the language and foundation for numerous fields, from nursing to the sciences to architecture.

One of the biggest reasons for the large wave of college students behind in algebra is timing. If a student takes algebra as an eighth- or ninth-grader, it often means arriving at a community college or state college with several years separating their last encounter with x and y.

"You have to keep practicing your skills or they diminish," said Michael Kane, interim dean of sciences and mathematics at Sierra College. "The pipeline from secondary education to college can have such big gaps."
Even students who have worked through several years of higher math in high school can find themselves back at the algebra drawing board. Too often, high school standards do not run as high as college standards, professors said. The state's high school exit exam, required to graduate from public school, tests basic math and pre-algebra skills, but doesn't go deeply into algebra, they said.

In addition, if students earn C's or lower in high school math courses, or if teachers grade too softly, it can lead to wider gaps.

"If you get a C in a math class and you try to go on and build, you're going to have holes," said Cosumnes math professor Lora Stewart.

A mathematical truth

Jessie Bahn, 24, is a classic example. A 2001 graduate of Rocklin High School, she earned a C in algebra as a sophomore.

Now a sophomore at Sierra College, Bahn hopes to transfer to the University of California, Davis, to study environmental science. This semester, she is in her second go-round with beginning algebra, grappling with variables and difficult equations.

"Being put back in this class was frustrating," she said. "It's things you have already learned. You think you should know them, but you don't any more."

Bahn is among tens of thousands of young adults across California facing a mathematical truth: Algebra matters.

Community college students earning an associate's degree must pass beginning algebra or show they have proficiency scoring high enough on a placement test or having passed advanced math in high school. Starting next year, two-year degrees will require either intermediate algebra or an equivalent course, Martin said. Community college students transferring to a four-year university must meet even higher math thresholds.

The California State University and University of California systems require three years of math algebra 1, geometry and intermediate algebra for admission.

A bachelor's degree requires a college-level math course. The courses vary, depending on the major, but for each, intermediate algebra is a prerequisite.

On the more selective UC campuses, college math requirements vary with the majors.

For students entering college, being behind in algebra can carry a big price, Kane said.

"It impacts a student in every possible way," he said. "The most important factor is time." Dropping back two or three levels in math can add extra semesters of work.

"You see every possible emotion in remedial math classes tears, fears, frustration, embarrassment," Kane added. "The anxiety level in those classrooms is so high."

Patching the disconnect

The "disconnect" between high school and college algebra has educators reviewing teaching practices.

In the Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, a task force this year found inconsistencies at the fifth- and sixth-grade levels in the way essential skills such as fractions and decimals were being taught. If students don't get a solid grounding in such basic skills, they likely will have trouble in higher math courses, associate superintendent Mary Shelton said.

"We have been smoothing that out all year," she said. "We want our students to be ready for college."

The state's community college system began a $33 million-a-year "Basic Skills Initiative" last year to address remediation in math and English, said Carole Bogue-Feinour, vice chancellor for academic affairs.

At different campuses, anywhere from 60 percent to 80 percent of those tested need one or more courses in basic math and English before they can move into college-level work, Bogue-Feinour said.

At Cosumnes River College, the math department has begun using a new online program called "MyMathLab" that provides individualized support and active learning opportunities for students.

"I used to hate algebra," said Cosumnes student Stephen Rangel, 19. He took algebra twice at Galt High School, passing the second time. He's facing beginning algebra again at Cosumnes, but now he's using the new software. "I used to be in trouble. Now I can actually help other people."

The CSU system also is concerned, said Robby Ching, chair of the learning skills center at California State University, Sacramento. Statistics show the percentage of first-time freshmen who met entry requirements, but still needed remediation in math, rose to 37.2 percent last fall up from 36.7 percent in 2003.

At CSUS, the percentage needing remedial math was higher, at 41.8 percent last fall, although that figure fell 2.8 percentage points over the past five years.

The state college system has been reaching out to high schools to find solutions, Ching said. Among the possibilities: Designing a senior year math course to help bridge the gaps.

Many high schools let math go by the wayside during the senior year, Ching said. The Elk Grove Unified School District is an exception. It requires all seniors to take a math course their last year of high school, said Associate Superintendent Christina Pena.

The goal: to better position students for success in college and maintain rigor in the senior year.


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