CHANGING EQUATIONS: How Community Colleges Are Re-thinking College Readiness in Math

Complete Report available to download,

From the Executive Summary:  Because of their high enrollment and generally low completion rates, community colleges have been identified as central to efforts to improve higher education outcomes. But that improvement won’t be realized unless more students succeed in math. Together, the high proportion of community college students requiring math remediation, and the relatively low proportion who succeed in required remedial sequences, make placement in developmental math one of the single greatest barriers to college completion. Only 20 percent of students who place into remedial (also known as developmental) math courses ultimately complete the remedial sequence and pass a college-level math course - such as college algebra or statistics - that is required to graduate or transfer.

An increasing number of colleges in California and nationally are involved in experiments aimed at improving, reforming, or even eliminating math remediation in community colleges. This includes a new movement to construct alternative pathways for the majority of community college students, those whose educational goals may not require a second year of algebra. Through LearningWorks’ efforts to strengthen student achievement in the California Community Colleges, it has become clear that practitioners involved in such experiments are eager to learn about parallel efforts, and those not yet involved are curious about the work underway, whether in California or elsewhere in the nation.

LearningWorks commissioned this report, Changing Equations, to address those needs.  Critics argue that intermediate algebra unnecessarily hinders some students pursuing degrees in fields such as English, history, art, and political science from ever graduating. The new pathways for non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students are course sequences including both remedial-level courses as well as credit-bearing gatekeeper math courses. Many of these new sequences stress skills in statistics or quantitative reasoning, which proponents say serve most students better in their lives and careers than does high-level algebra. While the de-emphasis on intermediate algebra remains controversial, the math pathways movement resonates with other initiatives to focus community college students’ education around structured pathways leading toward careers.

These experiments are informed by findings emerging from both research and practice that are starting to shift the understanding of math readiness. At the heart of that evolution are four key insights:

  1. Math is a hurdle for the majority of community college students. Roughly 60 percent of community college students are placed in developmental math courses.
  2. Most students deemed “unready” in math will never graduate. Only 20 percent of students who place into developmental math complete a required gatekeeper course in math.
  3. The tests used to determine readiness are not terribly accurate. Research has estimated that as many as a fifth of students placed into remedial math courses could have earned a B or better in a college-level course without first taking the remedial class.
  4. The math sequence required by most colleges is irrelevant for many students’ career aspirations. According to research, about 70 percent or more of people with bachelor’s degrees do not require intermediate algebra in their careers.
In sum, the reformers argue that, on the basis of a weakly predictive test, large numbers of students are being prevented from completing college unless they pass a challenging course that may be irrelevant to their futures. Nevertheless, until recently there have been very few experiments with alternatives, leaving intermediate algebra as an effective proxy for determining whether students are “college material.” Various national policy and disciplinary organizations, aware of the gravity of the remedial math dilemma, are urging colleges to re-think this approach and try out alternatives. These include the Developmental Math Committee of the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges, Complete College America, and the National Center on Education and the Economy.