Q&A: The politics of math: Is algebra necessary to obtain a college degree?


If you can’t simplify the following operation, chances are the state won’t let you graduate from community college:

Algebra problems like this one are at the heart of a dispute over the level of math deemed necessary to earn an associate degree or transfer to a four-year college. Failure to complete intermediate algebra has stumped tens of thousands of California community college students each year, keeping them in a limbo that has sparked increasing criticism of the state’s (and much of the nation’s) one-size-fits-all math requirement.

How necessary is intermediate algebra, a high school-level course on factoring trinomials, graphing exponential functions and memorizing formulas that most non-math or science students will rarely use in everyday life or for the rest of college? A growing number of educators have challenged this long-held gold standard of math in California, particularly at a time when two-year colleges are under increasing pressure to improve completion rates. More than 3 out of 4 community college students in California cannot pass the placement exam and are forced to take one, two or more semesters of remedial math. Discouraged or frustrated, most drop out before ever earning a degree.

Does the system need to change? If so, how? Here is a look at what some in the field have to say about this highly charged debate.

What is the current requirement?

To transfer to California State University, community college students generally must show evidence of completing an approved, quantitative reasoning course with “an explicit intermediate algebra prerequisite.”

In 2009, the California Community Colleges system raised its elementary algebra minimum and also began requiring demonstrated math competency at the level “typically known as Intermediate Algebra ... or another mathematics course at the same level, with the same rigor.” The push was led by the Academic Senate, which reasoned that requiring only elementary algebra for an associate degree was sending the wrong message to students in high schools, who were already doing the equivalent, and universities, which required the intermediate level for transfer admission.

“In our mind, it was academically unsupportable that you can say you need [elementary algebra] to graduate from high school, and then after two years of college, and we give you an associate's degree, we think the level of math is the same,” said Ian Walton, who was president of the Academic Senate at the time the graduation standards were adopted.

But Walton and his colleagues were hoping the open-ended phrasing of “or another mathematics course at the same level, with the same rigor” would prompt new ideas and alternative courses to help students reach that higher level of quantitative reasoning, particularly those pursuing majors that did not necessarily use traditional algebra. But many innovations have proved controversial.

So what’s the debate about?

“While the intent has been to raise achievement, the hidden underbelly of high algebra expectations has been swelling enrollment in college developmental (remedial) math,” according to a widely cited 2015 report by Pamela Burdman published with LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education. “The vision of millions of college students spending time and money on high school material is an unsettling one to policymakers, parents, and students alike — even more so as research has revealed that these courses have no positive effects in terms of student success.”

Numerous attempts across the state to provide more remedial help or additional tutoring have largely failed. Radically different approaches — focusing on statistics, computer science, data analysis and other curriculum more applicable to say, a political science or psychology major — have been scrutinized for lacking rigor and assurance they’d be accepted at a four-year university. Others argue that intermediate algebra is a necessary path for higher-paying science, engineering and math careers.

“You have math faculty who have been teaching for 35 years and passionately believe in intermediate algebra. And you have new, younger faculty that equally passionately believe in all the new experiments on 'how can we make students more successful?’” Walton said. “And the trouble is, it often gets cast in terms of, 'watering down’ the curriculum and quality.”

Why algebra?

For decades, the standard high school and college math curriculum in America has been based on two years of algebra and a year of geometry — a track that prepares students to eventually take calculus. This pathway originated with entrance requirements at Harvard and other elite schools, according to Burdman’s report, and “became solidified after the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik motivated reforms in U.S. science and engineering education to boost the nation’s technological prowess.”

Many agree on the foundational value of elementary algebra for all — by learning the basic concepts of using variables to represent abstract quantities and understanding what happens when one side of an equal sign is manipulated, students are taught to think critically and more abstractly. Intermediate algebra builds on these concepts but is more technical and specific — some critics have compared this to studying Latin, which has lost its relevance as a college requirement for all.

What are other possible ways of obtaining “college-level’ quantitative reasoning skills?

Some schools, like Pierce College and College of the Canyons, have experimented with programs such as the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway and those developed by the California Acceleration Project — courses in statistics and data analysis designed for majors not in math or science as a way to reach college-level quantitative reasoning without getting stuck in non-credit remedial courses or completing a traditional intermediate algebra course. Supporters of this approach have noted that students find the material more engaging — and more immediately useful in following political polls, analyzing sports data or understanding research methodology.

Other schools have explored ways to streamline or accelerate the traditional arithmetic-to-intermediate algebra sequence by shortening the number of course requirements, integrating additional tutoring and guided exercises and/or pairing an online component.

Read more: How L.A. Trade Tech tried to change its algebra program and created an uproar »

What does Cal State think about all this?

Cal State administrators have been open to exploring alternative pathways for some majors: As a pilot, the system has accepted some transfers who completed the Statway program, and a few campuses are currently piloting the statistics approach for their own remedial math students.

This pilot has not been adopted without debate: In 2015, the math chairs of Cal State’s 23 campuses released a resolution criticizing the approach. A task force was formed later that year by the Academic Senate to review existing math requirements and better understand Statway and other alternatives.

To some degree, the discussion with faculty has evolved into determining which majors need to continue requiring intermediate algebra, and which could be more flexible in considering alternatives.

In a recent joint statement, Cal State and community college officials said: “Some CSU degree programs clearly require competency in intermediate algebra. For others, recent and forthcoming policy changes related to quantitative reasoning will necessitate further review.... We look forward to sharing this ongoing, intersegmental work, based on mutual respect and a deeply shared interest in and commitment to equity and the success of all students.”

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