California Expands Math Horizons for College Students

By Pamela Burdman  | Senior Project Director, Just Equations

IIt’s a milestone that wipes away arbitrary prerequisites that have held back students for decades.

As of yesterday, it’s the official policy of California’s community colleges that, with few exceptions, students at the system’s 112 colleges should not be compelled to take remedial math courses. In addition, students should have the option to enroll in mathematics sequences that are relevant and interesting to them rather than the algebra sequences that have traditionally been required.

Researcher John Hetts, whose analyses were instrumental in developing the new policies, called the change “a new beginning for understanding the capacity of community college students and their actual preparation for college,” in a tweet.

This is important because remedial sequences as well as misaligned prerequisites have been shown to hinder, rather than help, students in progressing toward a degree. Furthermore, even if a few students could benefit from such courses, the tests that have traditionally been used to determine who must take them had little ability to predict which students those are.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of California students — including a large proportion of African American and Latinx students — may have been required to enroll in remedial algebra courses that they don’t want or need to take in order to advance in their education.

The new policy opens new horizons for these students. Though they will still be expected to take a math course before earning a two-year degree or transferring to a four-year institution, they should be able to study math that does align with their area of study, rather than the standard algebra-intensive sequence, according to the memo, written jointly by the state Chancellor’s Office and the Academic Senate. In combination with similar changes being adopted by California State University, it signals a new approach to mathematics for the vast majority of college students in the state.

“Faculty should also design pathways that align with the students’ overall goals,” said the memo, which provides guidance to colleges in implementing a new law approved by the legislature in 2017. “For instance, if the college educates a large population of students who are non-STEM majors, those students should have access to pathways like liberal arts mathematics or statistics.”

Since only about 20 percent of community college students and 30 percent of university students major in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), that means that most colleges should be offering multiple options for students, as outlined in the report I co-authored with colleagues at WestEd and the University of Michigan. Courses like college algebra and pre-calculus are stepping stones to Calculus, which is typically required only by students in highly technical fields.

The new moves put California squarely in step with community colleges nationally, which recorded a 30 percent decline in remedial math enrollments from 2010 to 2015, according to a recent survey. The survey also found that nearly 60 percent of colleges had adopted some form of math pathways.

The next step is actual implementation, whose effectiveness will be essential to ensure that students actually reap the benefits of the new approaches.