Students can’t get “passed” mathStudy find college math a barrier to success
Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.
Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.
It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.
There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college
math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.
“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”
Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.
In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)
Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”
It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.
Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock. “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”
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