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