At Cal State, Algebra is a Civil Rights Issue

By Christopher Edley, Jr.

This piece originally appeared in EdSource.

The next civil rights court battle for California higher education may be about algebra.

California State University is finalizing new system-wide math policies as part of an initiative to increase graduation rates and address equity gaps. But a recent move by CSU affecting students transferring from community colleges threatens to undermine community college efforts to do the same.

The culprit is Intermediate Algebra, a high-school level course of technical procedures that most college students will never use, either in college or in life. Many students pass a course on this content in high school (Algebra II), but when they arrive at a community college, more than 80 percent are required to take remedial courses repeating this material if they don’t score high enough on a standardized test. And the problem is, most community college students don’t take just one remedial course. To meet the Intermediate Algebra standard, they are often required to take two years of remedial courses that don’t count for transfer credit at CSU. By contrast, a CSU student who is required to take remedial math at CSU does not have to demonstrate intermediate algebra competency in order to take credit-bearing math courses.

As a result, every year, more than 170,000 California community college students are placed into remedial math based on how well they do on a standardized test in algebra. Over 110,000 of them never complete math requirements for getting an associate degree or for transferring to CSU or the University of California.

About 80 percent of African Americans required to take more than one remedial class in math do not complete their math requirements within six years, compared to 67 percent of Hispanics and 61 percent of whites, according to the community college system’s student success scorecard.  A recent estimate found that, among community college students, 50-60 percent of the racial disparity in degree completion is driven by decisions to place students in math remediation, according to an unpublished study by the RP Group.

Some CSU faculty and system leaders suggest that the system’s Intermediate Algebra remediation policies support equity. Because Intermediate Algebra is necessary for most STEM majors, they say, requiring it ensures that students of color are not “tracked” away from lucrative majors.

What these educators don’t appear to realize is that the same policies track many capable students – especially students of color attending community colleges – away from completing a college degree at all.

Why is this a civil rights legal problem for state higher education, rather than just a policy problem for social justice and prosperity? It is because, outside of specific majors such as engineering, intermediate algebra skills are not required for success in college. In fact, popular college math courses like Statistics do not require intermediate algebra. Studies show that the very same students, whose futures are threatened by algebra policies, can pass a rigorous college-level statistics course without knowing intermediate algebra. Statistics satisfies the math requirement for transfer from community colleges to CSU and UC, as well as for a baccalaureate degree.

In numerous programs around the country, students who are given the chance to enroll directly in college statistics, or take a remedial course on quantitative reasoning skills better aligned with statistics, are succeeding at far higher rates than those forced to take algebra courses. Under a pilot program authorized by CSU, some community colleges have implemented a sequence of courses known as “statistics pathways” in which the intermediate algebra requirement is waived. These pathways substantially increase completion of credit-bearing math courses, improve transfer rates, decrease time to degree, and substantially narrow equity gaps. Recent action by CSU to expect students in various majors that require Statistics to nevertheless demonstrate competency in Intermediate Algebra could thwart expansion of these successful pathways and put unnecessary barriers in students’ way.

Current waivers and pilot projects help far too few students. The inequity, and the legal problem, remain, grounded in a dirty secret about math requirements: the requirements are largely arbitrary. They often reflect tradition or a data-free faculty intuition about the academic grounding students need for college completion, career success and effective citizenship. Many times, the faculty judgment is based on faculty politics, with a fig leaf of analysis. This is the case with associate degrees designed for transfer students, which are based on agreements between community colleges and the CSU system, and intended to smooth pathways to the university for community college students. CSU has applied pressure to add Intermediate Algebra requirements to transfer degrees without evidence that such requirements are needed for success in those majors.

This kind of maneuvering shouldn’t be allowed to trump federal civil rights law or the Equal Protection Clause of California’s Constitution.

If CSU and other public schools continue the current exclusionary math practices, civil rights litigators representing affected students should sue as soon as possible for violations of the Equal Protection clause of the state constitution, and seek federal enforcement of regulations under Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  In fact, civil rights enforcers under Obama were looking into it after I filed a complaint in late 2015.

CSU policy needs to ensure that these pathways are available to all students who take statistics as part of their degree programs, and that intermediate algebra is required only when it is truly essential to students’ success in a given major. This should be true whether students start at a community college or at a CSU campus.

A college degree can break the cycle of poverty, giving graduates access to incomes that far surpass the earning potential of their peers without a college degree. CSU must take steps to ensure that math requirements do not pose arbitrary and discriminatory barriers to degree attainment.

By the way, please expand this polynomial, then solve for y:

Can I assume, as CSU and many math professors do, that if you can’t do this, you don’t deserve a college degree and you are unfit for meaningful civic engagement?