Students can’t get “passed” math

Study find college math a barrier to success
By

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

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

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.

Schools matter

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.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

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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24 Comments

  1. this post is helpful  regarding those person having problem in maths.
     
    it is really beneficial .
     

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  2. I think this nation has a math fixation (particularly of the theoritical/decontextualized form), which has led to what Director Shulock refers to as a “math phobia.”  The vast majority of college majors and job openings in the labor force do not require anything above basic math, and yet we want every college-bound student to go through an entire year of Algebra, an entire year of Geometry, and then another year of Alg/Trig just to get their high school diploma and be “college ready.” Is there any wonder why so many students tune-out?

    I know of many VERY successful adults who never grasped theoritical algebra, and who hated the theorems of geometry class, and who never use either as they sing all the way to the bank.

    If such decontextualized mathematics coursework is an indicator of how successful a student will be once they go to a 4-year college, perhaps we need to reconsider the value and relevance of much of higher education.  At the very least, we shouldn’t be sending ANY signals to kids that they are losers if they don’t ever fully grasp such algebraic formulas and principles, and provide them alternative means of learning fundamentally important and meaningful ways of utilizing mathematics in their day-to-day experiences (and career pathways).

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  3. This article makes the case for the Linked Learning approach used in effective high school pathway programs and career academies: linking academics to real world careers makes learning come alive for many students. This combination of rigor and relevance is especially critical in math and science so more students graduate from high school ready for a full range of postsecondary options.

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  4. I struggled with math, it caused me to have to go to community college instead of direct to CSU or UC. I went to a private catholic school, so I was not denied good materials and instruction & still struggled with it. 

    I utilized the math lab and tutors at CC and ultimately transferred to UC Berkeley and got an English degree. It took me 3 years at CC instead of 2 just because of math. I saw a lot of kids who could have ultimately gotten a degree quit CC because of math and the fear of math. Just because one is bad at math does not mean they cannot develop sufficient mastery of it, especially with tutoring & time. It just may take more tutoring & time than others and more time than the assemblyline pace that schools demand.

    I have also found that for the average person “applied math” is all that is really needed. The ability to do basics; budgeting, percentages and averages, statistics, basic geometry, etc. I dont think I’ve ever needed much less used Trig or Calc or anything close to that for nomal daily living at work or at home. 

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  5. So I must ask Ms. McLean:  Do you believe every high school student needs to take and pass three years of theoritical mathematics (Alg I/Geo/AlgII) to get a high school diploma?

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  6. Thanks, ReillyFam … I suppose the saying is true: “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 

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  7. Fred: In the competitive economy of the 20st century, yes, every student should have the critical thinking skills and opportunities to chose their future by taking three years of mathematics in high school, but agree that teaching theory only without making the connection to the real world does a disservice to students. Linked Learning makes learning relevant by combining academics with rigorous technical training so students understand why they are learning higher math and how it is used in the real world. This opens doors for students and ensures they are ready when they graduate to go to college or become an apprentice in a technical trade.

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  8. So students and schools can and should have their cake and eat it too … but what happens to the kids who struggle with Algebraic concepts?  They will be remediated in that core (and highly tested) subject by doubling up their math courses; if they continue to struggle, they will be triple remediated, squeezing-out all other options (including the relevant, hands-on courses you reference).  And what will the costs be for all of this?

    LLPs sound great — in theory … but can we afford the real-world consequences of demanding all kids pass Alg I, Geo, and Alg II/Trig as a condition for receiving a high school diploma?  And if the UC decide to add a fourth year of mathematics, what then?  I don’t think that is realistic or even necessary to ensure student success beyond high school.  Only the A-G for-all crowd think this.

    I hope ConnectEd isn’t part of that crowd.  We cannot afford more of the same.

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  9. @ Fred, as a math teacher, I believe that you are right on. It is so sad to be required by the state to teach decontextualized, theoretical math. I think we can always add more context and more applications to the standard Algebra I and Geometry courses (beyond the veneer — photos, colorful page layouts, ethnic names in word problems — that textbook publishers provide so that they can market their books in this day and age), but it would be so much better to approach the problem from the other direction. What math skills do most students need for success at work and in life?
     
    I have also taught languages, and in that field, we switched long ago from “grammar for its own sake” to “grammar in the service of communication”.

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  10. While it may lessen the need for my services, I do not believe that all students should be forced to take mathematics courses as offered in high schools today.  This is especially so if they repeatedly struggle due to insufficient understanding, whether conceptual or procedural, and have little to no interest in overcoming their struggles, or taking the course sequence in the first place.
     
    At the same time, all students should have equitable access to courses required for college entry if that is their desire, and receive the highest quality instruction, and support, in those courses.  Furthermore, courses developing meaningful mathematics knowledge and skills, and taught in ways that students find invigorating, should be available.
     
    These options do not have to be mutually exclusive, they complement each other.   They even allow traversal from one to the other, likely with greater results for the student and society.  They differ in that they defer to individual student, or parent, choice that more likely aligns with a students’ capabilities, interests, and desired career path than what a federal, state, or local bureaucrat may dictate, or even a well-meaning education reformer may advocate.  More importantly, truly relevant mathematical skills remain undeveloped in the majority of high school graduates, for even those who pass many mathematics course sequences today possess only a partial understanding of the mathematics they supposedly learned.
     
    Unfortunately, the reliance on circa 1900 structures, processes, roles, and methods, coupled with the heavy-hand of federal funding a la NCLB (ESEA), RTTT, & The Blueprint, along with the oversimplification of reality for political expediency, forces public education into a one size shoe fits all approach, which fails to satisfy nearly any objective, but remains the same since the divide between opposing sides is too vast.  Only when our nation reals from a real and felt threat to our survival will real change occur, similar to Pearl Harbor, or Sputnik.  At the same time, if we wish our children’s children to celebrate the nation’s tricentennial, we must fall back on common sense approaches to improvements, rather than continue to rely on views biased by political persuasion, or worse financial corruption in the guise of choice, philanthropy, venture capital, or free markets for educational reform.
     
    I have so much more to say on this subject, but not enough time.  As a first year teacher, I find myself in this position all too often.  As I have heard though, the second year gets better!

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  11. It seems to me that the discussion here is not about math, it’s about the idea of a general education.  The main point being that entry to careers should not be inhibited by requiring students to get a general education.  Which questions the need for something called a high achool diploma (colleges may still want such packaging).  Why not be more specific and have high schools certify what students have actually learned?  That way  employers can decide for themselves which combination of skills they need.

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  12. The higher education industry has no business dictating what ALL students should learn in K-12.  It is high-time we all stop contributing to the fear mongering that sustains this industry and their runaway costs.   Cogent public policy would be well served by a sober re-evaluation of university education as it has falsely been sold to us —  ”a necessity to achieve social equity and economic success.
    University degrees are merely a stepping stone towards success for the minority of our students.  It is not a mindless destination resort for all.  It’s time that California’s K-12 policy stop pandering to false assumptions and instead be designed to deliver what ALL students need to contribute and succeed in a healthy society and strong economy.  In this case, university admissions requirements don’t cut it!

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  13. Hilary: you say “In the competitive economy of the 20st century, yes, every student should have the critical thinking skills and opportunities to chose their future by taking three years of mathematics in high school.” (I understand you meant 21st century)

    But, I think the problem here is that you make this statement as if it were a stipulated fact.  What is the foundation for which the Irvine Foundation and ConnectEd have come to believe this?

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  14. I was by all accounts a superstar math student in K-12… and even so, when I got to Algebra, I whined about how pointless it was. I finished with three years of post-calculus math in college, so obviously I got over it, but I’m not sure the theoretical-only approach is All That even for the students who appear to succeed.
     
    Rather than beating kids over the head with the same theoretical class they failed the first time, change the approach to a more visceral problem-solving one. Have them build and design scale models. Build a small suspension bridge. Teach them basic surveying. Have them shoot air cannons and predict the trajectories! :-) Show them why they want and need the math first, so they have a personal point of reference.
     
    Today algebra is second nature to me. But that facility really came despite, rather than because of, Saxon math.

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  15. This is an important issue. So many students’ college dreams go up in smoke in our long remedial sequences, especially in math, and De Anza deserves a lot of credit for what it’s doing. A nationwide study by the Community College Research Center revealed that more than 90% of students who place three or more levels below college Math are weeded out of community colleges before ever completing that early gatekeeper math requirement.

    One aspect of the problem not mentioned in the article is the length of the sequences themselves: the more layers of remedial coursework a student must take, the less likely they are to ever complete college math and get momentum toward their longer term goals.

    The California Acceleration Project is working to address this problem by redesigning math and English curricula to increase student completion. Addressing this problem requires shorter developmental pathways, rather than the standard 3-4 semester sequences at many colleges today. It also requires asking the question: Is what we’re teaching in these long sequences what students truly need to succeed at the college level?

    In 2011-12, seven colleges are working with us to pilot shorter, redesigned developmental curricula that bypass the traditional math pipeline and prepare students for the study of college-level Statistics. The rationale: if a student is heading into a major that does not require Calculus — e.g. majors outside of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math fields — then most of what is covered in the long remedial algebra sequence is not, in fact, pre-requisite knowledge for their pathway.

    More information available at http://cap.3csn.org

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  16. A few people asked, in this context, whether every high school student should take “decontextualized, theoretical math.” I have two points to make here.
     
    1) I believe that every high school student that aspires to get at least a four-year Bachelor’s degree ought to take the equivalent of Algebra 1 & 2 and Geometry. I believe this is a reasonable requirement by most 4-year colleges. At the same time I fully agree with Chris Walker that the “higher education industry has no business dictating what ALL students should learn in K-12.” These two sentiments are easily reconciled by not buying into the rather foolish idea that (a) everyone needs to go to college, and (b) that graduating high schools equals being college ready.
     
    2) I don’t think that Algebra 1 & 2 and Geometry equal “decontextualized, theoretical math.” I am sure that many teachers teach them this way and that many non-teachers perceive them this way, yet this is simply the result of poor teaching. Algebra does not need to be decontextualized and is, indeed, helpful in solving variety of everyday intuitive and fascinating problems, as well as support learning chemistry and physics (unless those are considered “decontextualized” too :-). Geometry has been always reliant on intuitive understanding of plane and space and only poor teaching can disconnect the two.
     
    But there is no question in my mind that the recent belief that everyone should go to college or that every high school graduate must take A-G requirement is causing an inordinate amount of damage and unnecessary anxiety. Finland has about half of its cohort take a vocational path in high school — why don’t we learn THAT from them rather than promote the idiotic and fake Common Core “college readiness” on all?

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  17. Ze’ev, I have to ask what you think of CPM. That’s the only “contextual” Algebra I curriculum that I know of. I love it, but it meets with tremendous opposition from mathematicians, school board members, superintendents, principals, and parents, to say nothing of typical students, who are forced to exercise their thinking and pattern-recognition skills daily, instead of being told which algorithms to memorize and follow.
     
    Traditional Algebra I curricula from Holt, McDougal Littell, Glenncoe and the other big publishers are thoroughly “decontextualized”. I’ve just spent two weeks teaching the properties of exponents and radicals. The fact that the chapters are drawn that way (along the lines of math topics rather than applications) already tells you something. Almost all of the questions are computational/algorithmic. The word problems, such as they are, are contrived. I supplement liberally with NCTM, SVMI and salvaged CPM stuff, but time, resources, and authority to deviate from my district’s official program are all limited.
     
    On the subject of geometry and intuitive understanding, there’s a long, humorous paper floating around about how math is killed in the schools. Look up “A Mathematician’s Lament”

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  18. I hate CPM, although it occasionally comes up with an innovative way to introduce a topic. Waaaaaay too much text, not enough practice, problems are deliberately, annoyingly, long and pointless.
     
    Holt has all sorts of fascinating word problems and I love the challenge problems. Ditto with McDougall. That said, I rarely use the books for anyone other than my top students, who I can give the books while I’m working with the rest of the kids and let them work independently.
     
    “But there is no question in my mind that the recent belief that everyone should go to college or that every high school graduate must take A-G requirement is causing an inordinate amount of damage and unnecessary anxiety.”

    You say this, and yet you’re the one saying we should shove all 8th graders into Algebra, ready or not. I don’t understand the disconnect.
     
     

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  19. Paul, I am sorry for not responding on this one — I was traveling.
     
    I don’t like CPM. I don’t like it because it tries to situate everything in the context of applications, which I consider is counterproductive and inefficient. Some of CPM applications are very nice, but a whole curriculum based on it leaves too many unfilled holes. In other words I would happily steal a few units from CPM to supplement Dolciani (also McDougal-Littell currently, but probably not the one you use) but not for the bulk of teaching. Not that Dolciani is that great, but it is better than anything you are bound to find these days.
     
    I don’t consider Dolciani decontextualized, nor do I believe one needs to be fully task-based like CPM to be contextualized. To a very large degree it depends what one does with the topic at hand. Some may start with exploration of a kind of “authentic” problem, other may start with an essentially abstract problem (nothing really “authentic” about the apocryphal story of king’s reward of grain on a chessboard to introduce exponents) and quickly move to derivation and explanation of the concepts and results. But then one needs to engage students with multitude of problems applying those concepts in variety of contexts both real and “authentic,” some worked out in the class on the board by the teacher and students, some left for (slowly decreasing) fraction of homework over a period of few weeks. And the “authentic” problems do not need to be long or messy — they just need to be well thought out, and often can be short and “neat.”

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  20. Cal: “You say this, and yet you’re the one saying we should shove all 8th graders into Algebra, ready or not. I don’t understand the disconnect.”
     
    Perhaps if you were to engage in a close reading of anything where you think I said that we should shove all of them, whether ready or not, you would be able to answer your own question.

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  21. You are right on Fred. 

    The U.S. system of education has experienced about the same rate of failure in high school math for the last 30 years–it’s about 50% beginning in algebra 1, geometry, algebra 2 and trig.

     Now students fail “twice,” the course and the end of year test!
    Then, lo and behold, we send them to “remedial” classes in the summer or for another year–where many fail again. Then, maybe they send them to a “second remedial” class, etc. etc.  

    It’s time to stop wasting resources on this mathematical drudgery for the many–they simply don’t understand this “contextless” babble nor do they understand its use. Let the few who struggle through and pass, because “Daddy is an engineer” and let the rest option out. 

    The anwser? Require one shot at algebra 1 and let those who pass, pass, and those who fail, fail. Then let those that fail pursue options other than the “deadly three” in mathematics so at least they will have some stake in continuing their education.

    The Sage of Wake Forest

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