Let’s Not Drop the Algebra Requirement

We can find ways to curb the community college drop-out rate without lowering our standards.

By Alex Chediak Published on July 26, 2017

Chancellor Oakley of the California Community Colleges system wants to drop the intermediate algebra requirement for an associate degree unless a student is pursuing a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) major. His argument goes like this: “Only a quarter of our students pursue a STEM field. Why should everyone have to prove they’ve learned intermediate algebra? That class is a big reason so many students fail or drop out. Maybe if we switch to a different math class (or offer a few options), we’d see more students succeed.”

I’m not convinced, but I applaud the motives. Community colleges have high drop-out rates. A recent study found that just under half (48 percent) of the system’s students either complete an associate’s degree or transfer on to a four-year college within six years. That’s a long time — and more than half of students get lost.

Keep in mind that many of these students had a poor experience in high school, or come from a troubled home, or are working 30+ hours a week while trying to be a full-time student. So yes, getting more of them all the way through the pipeline would be a huge win. But is ditching the intermediate algebra requirement a good way to get there? Or might the cure be worse than the disease?

Where did the Algebra Requirement Come From?

If you’re on the college prep math track, you’d take elementary algebra in the 8th grade, geometry as a freshman, intermediate algebra as a sophomore, pre-calculus as a junior, and finally calculus as a senior. This sequence was based on the entrance requirements at Harvard that other colleges later copied. When the Soviets launched Sputnik, the U.S. got serious about training students to succeed in STEM fields. That solidified the Algebra I – geometry – Algebra II – pre-calc – calc sequence into something of a gold standard.  

As Christians, we should support policies that promote human flourishing. 

It’s true that only 14 percent of high school seniors actually get as far as calculus. But even if you’re two years behind this track, you’d still complete intermediate algebra before finishing high school. If your SAT/ACT math score is low, or you don’t take one of these standardized tests, your college will probably have you take a math placement test. The results of this test could land you in, or back in, an intermediate algebra class.

Five Reasons to Keep the Requirement

1. Some of the criticism is that intermediate algebra teaches skills that “won’t be needed in the real world.” But they’ll be using the numerical reasoning skills that they pick up along the way long after they’ve forgotten how to solve matrices.

2. Replacing intermediate algebra with an “equally rigorous” math course is easier said than done. Because other courses — even 100 level statistics courses — list intermediate algebra as a prerequisite.

3. U.S. students continue to lag behind many industrial nations in math competency, and we’re below average for OECD nations. Dropping a math requirement sends the wrong signal to K-12 schools. Remember: We’re talking about a course that most students should be completing in high school. Let’s put our effort into training and rewarding better high school and community college math teachers, not lowering our standards. One observer notes that “students who major in elementary education — they’re going to be grade school teachers — have the highest rates of math anxiety of any college major.” Let’s work on that, so that the kids of today, and the college students of tomorrow, don’t share this anxiety.

If anything, math competency will become more important in a world where artificial intelligence is expected to knock out some lines of work.

4. If anything, math competency will become more important in a world where artificial intelligence is expected to knock out some lines of work. We shouldn’t fear the rise of robots. Technology creates more jobs than it destroys. But these new jobs will require higher-order thinking and quantitative reasoning skills.

5. Boosting graduation rates by making it easier on the students devalues the degree earned. With regard to those transferring to four-year colleges, you’re just passing on the problem to wherever the student earns his or her BA/BS degree.

As Christians, we should support policies that promote human flourishing. Come up with more creative ways to teach the content — like using interactivity, learning games, and on-line tutorials that go at each student’s pace — but leave the math competency standard where it is. Anything less won’t produce graduates who can succeed in a technologically disruptive era.

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor at California Baptist University and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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