The nation’s largest public university is pushing to raise its minimum standards for freshman admissions—a move that has galvanized opposition from advocates and some school districts that argue it puts more roadblocks in the path of students who already struggle to meet current requirements.
California State University, which enrolls nearly a half million students on 23 campuses, wants to add a year-long “quantitative reasoning” course to its current minimum standards for admissions.
University officials say the additional class, which can be a math course, a laboratory science course, or a math-heavy elective such as statistics, economics, coding, or personal finance, will cut dropout rates and increase the number of students who graduate on time.
But opponents say it could shut out otherwise qualified black, Latino, and low-income students. The university system’s 25-member board of trustees was scheduled to vote on the proposal during its meeting this week, but at the request of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, the vote was postponed to January.
The proposed requirement would be on top of the three years of high school math that are already part of the minimum standards for entry to California State University. The University of California system, which has 10 campuses and about 280,000 students, has the same minimum course requirements.
Creating a ‘Two-Tiered System’?
Adding the new course is about providing a stronger academic foundation for students who are already eligible for the university system, said Marquita Grenot-Scheyer, an assistant vice chancellor for the CSU system who oversees educator preparation and public school programs. Only a small fraction of students enroll without having taken a fourth year of math or a course that has a quantitative reasoning requirement, Grenot-Scheyer said. But those students are less likely to stay beyond their freshman year: about 85 percent of students who have four years of math come back for their sophomore year, compared to 74 percent of freshmen who had only three years of high school math.
“This is about access, success, and completion,” she said. The university is trying to close equity gaps among its own students, she said, and “we know that based upon our data, academic preparation in high school is absolutely critical to eliminating these gaps.”
But some school districts that serve large numbers of black, Latino, and low-income students see it as a block to access and a strain on limited budgets.
“I think the real question is why are we creating more barriers for students?” said Alfonso Jimenez, the deputy superintendent for educational services in the 45,600-student Santa Ana Unified district. About 96 percent of the district’s students are Latino, and 88 percent are from low-income families. It requires students to complete three years of math in order to earn a diploma.
The proposal “really benefits students that are strong in math and science. But if you’re not going to major in math or science or one of the STEM areas, that alone creates a two-tiered system,” he said.
Such a move would also force the district to get rid of some non-math electives—classes students “can strive and do well in”—in order to accommodate more electives that can meet the new requirement, he said.
And it would require hiring more teachers qualified to teach math or the math-oriented electives. “How is this going to be paid for?” Jimenez said.
A System That Reflects California’s Diverse Student Body
California State University draws 95 percent of its student body from high schools in the state. California State University has traditionally drawn from the top third of California students, while the more-competitive University of California system has historically drawn from the top eighth of the state’s students. As a result, CSU campuses have been more accessible to under-represented students and more closely reflect the students who attend the state’s public schools. In the fall of 2019, about 44 percent of students in the CSU system were Hispanic, 21 percent were white, 16 percent were Asian, and 4 percent were African American, roughly mirroring the demographics of the state’s public school system. Nearly a third of undergraduates are the first in their families to attend college.
A study released earlier this year found that about 41 percent of the state’s high school graduates in 2015 met the current minimum standards, which also include four years of English and additional requirements in history, foreign language, and science.
However, only 30 percent of black students, 32 percent of Latino students, and 34 percent of socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the class of 2015 met the minimum entry standards.
California only requires two years of math to earn a high school diploma, one of only three states that have that low a bar (the others are Maine and Montana). However, California districts can add additional requirements, and most do require at least three years of math. Only 2 percent of the state’s 977 districts require a fourth year of math for a high school diploma.
The CSU has proposed a longer ramp-up before the new requirement would go into effect, compared to when it first introduced the proposal: instead of applying to the class of 2026—students who are currently in 6th grade—it would apply to the class of 2027, who are currently 5th graders. This would give more time for districts to prepare for the additional requirement.
“We do a disservice to our K-12 districts to suggest they can’t make changes in seven years,” Grenot-Scheyer said.
California State University also said it would put an additional $10 million over four years toward efforts to increase the number of math, science, and computer science teachers produced at its campuses, which would benefit local districts. And at least in the early years of the requirement, CSU would provide automatic exemptions to prospective students who are not able to meet the requirements due to a lack of resources in their high schools; the individual student would not have to request the exemption.
Not Enough Math in High School?
In documentation that accompanied the proposal, CSU officials note the small number of districts that have added a fourth year of math to their high school graduation requirements, and, as a result, have seen a boost in the percentage of students who are eligible for admissions.
Long Beach Unified is one of those systems. About 70 percent of the district’s students are low-income, and 69 percent are black or Latino. However, after adopting an additional math requirement six years ago, Long Beach’s high school seniors who met the minimum entry standards increased from 37 percent in 2011-12 to 60 percent for 2018-19. Those gains were seen across all racial and ethnic groups, though eligibility among black students and Latino students in 2018-19 was still lower than the overall district rate, at 49 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
“When students were not engaged in math reasoning and skill-building for all four years, that was putting them at a deficit when they entered college and enrolled in a math class,” Pamela Seki, an assistant superintendent in Long Beach, told the news organization EdSource earlier this year.
Robert Q. Berry, the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said the proposal could create opportunities for students to study math in a way that puts the topic in a real-life context. There could be opportunities for creative solutions, and co-teaching between math teachers and teachers in career and technical education courses, he said.
Students often ask why some math classes are useful, he said.
“As educators, we can no longer ignore them. We need to answer to those questions,” he said. The additional requirement “might serve as a motivator for students to continue their study of mathematics.”
But advocates for black, Latino, and low-income students say the architects of the proposal haven’t taken a hard enough look at how it will negatively impact those students.
“We still feel like they’re still trying to move this policy forward without data on the disproportionate impact this will have,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of Education Trust-West, a research and advocacy group.
She would like to see the university system partner with the state department of education to help school districts increase their math offerings and provide more access to students who are currently underrepresented in math and math-heavy courses. And postponing the vote by a couple of months won’t help either, she said.
“What we’re not convinced about is that delaying until January will give a long enough runway to do that work,” she said.
The Los Angeles school board adopted a resolution earlier this year opposing the CSU measure. It said the proposal had been drafted without consulting local districts and that funding was inadequate to support it. The proposal will “disproportionately [harm] students of color in under-resourced high schools that do not offer a fourth year of math,” the resolution said.
Los Angeles requires three years of math for graduation. The 74, an education news website, found that less than a quarter of the district’s seniors took a fourth math or quantitative reasoning course during the 2018-19 school year.
The proposal, if it moves forward, needs to do so with equity in mind, said Pamela Burdman, a senior project director with the Opportunity Institute who focuses on strengthening math pathways to college.
“It’s only fair to provide the assistance and scaffolding high schools need to ensure equitable math opportunity,” Burdman wrote in a September blog post. “Students shouldn’t have to pay the cost for the gap between the idealized use of admissions requirements to boost high school preparation and the messier reality on the ground.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Could Calif. Admissions Plan Shut Out Blacks and Latinos?