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College & Workforce Readiness

Retooled Courses Help Students Avoid a Remedial-Math Roadblock to College

By Catherine Gewertz — May 22, 2018 6 min read
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Math is a notorious stumbling block that trips up students seeking college degrees. Every year, tens of thousands of young people fail to graduate because they can’t earn enough math credits.

The landscape is daunting: Two-thirds of the students at community colleges, and 4 in 10 of those at four-year institutions, take remedial courses. Math is a much bigger sand trap than English: Far more postsecondary students fall into remedial math than reading, and fewer move on to credit-bearing courses.

To help students across that bumpy terrain, math educators have been trying new approaches that are designed to capture high school skills and college-level content on a compressed timeline. They’re teaching math through real-world problems, and reworking course content to better mesh with students’ career goals.

Community colleges are using the courses to help students avoid the math pothole. But high schools are starting to embrace them, too, as a way to bolster students with shaky math skills—or low confidence in their overall academic power—and boost the chances they’ll earn college degrees.

The new approach rocked Skyler Puckette’s world. The Madison, Wis., student was homeschooled since early childhood. She didn’t soar in her studies, and her most intense struggles were in math, she said. As she fell further behind, a high school diploma became impossible.

Making plans to get her GED, Puckette learned about a program at Madison Area Technical College that would help her earn her high school diploma and associate degree. Enrolling last fall, she placed into a course called “math reasoning,” one of the new breed of math classes designed to help students like her.

The course was very different from her earlier math learning, which focused on procedures. It used real-world scenarios to engage students, asking them to apply math formulas to calculating the dosage of a baby’s medication, or analyzing the racial disparities in prison populations. It required them to work in groups, a technique to eliminate the isolation struggling students can experience.

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And it shook up the assumptions built into typical math course sequencing. Instead of functioning as a funnel to higher-level algebra, precalculus, and calculus, it focused on building Puckette’s quantitative-reasoning muscles.

Passing that one-semester course gave Puckette half the math credits she needed for an associate degree in a non-STEM course of study. It also boosted her confidence.

“It made me think I can actually do this. I can do school without [math] being this thing that I’ll just fail at,” she said.

Now the 19-year-old who figured she’d go to pastry school has raised her sights. She wants to transfer to the University of Wisconsin campus in Stout for a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.

To make that leap, she has to take on a heavier load of math than she’d planned: the second-semester quantitative-reasoning course she’s in now, plus two more semester courses. She’s nervous, but optimistic.

Tackling a Tough Math Problem

The course Puckette took is known in most other colleges as “Quantway 1.” It was developed by Carnegie Math Pathways, a project of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, along with a half-dozen other foundations. Carnegie launched Quantway 1; Quantway 2, its second-semester companion; and “Statway,” a yearlong statistics course, in 2011 as a deliberate tactic to fight the way math trips students up in college. They compress remedial and college-level content into one year, allowing successful students to move into credit-bearing math classes more quickly than through a typical three-semester sequence that progresses from lower-level to college-level algebra.

Ann Edwards, the director of learning and teaching for Carnegie Math Pathways, which is run by the technical assistance group WestEd, said the idea was to transform entry-level math “from a gatekeeper into a gateway.”

Combining high school and college concepts and teaching them in a real-world way, for college credit, could help students who might otherwise get stuck in developmental math, or who struggle in the typical algebra-trigonometry-calculus sequence.

The program has quintupled its student participation, from 1,550 at 29 colleges in its first year, 2011-12, to 8,500 students at 69 institutions in 2016-17. Course passing rates in Statway and Quantway are three to four times greater than those of traditional remedial math classes.

Students in Statway and Quantway are also more likely to transfer to four-year institutions than their peers in other math classes, remedial or non-remedial.

Diane J. Briars sees the Pathways work as part of a larger national push to change math instruction. Getting away from the lecture format, connecting math to real-world scenarios, and helping students see the meaning in math are big themes, she said. So is questioning the presumption that most students should take the traditional Algebra 2-precalculus-calculus course sequence, she said.

“Large numbers of students have been prevented from pursuing careers they’re interested in because of the math,” said Briars, a math consultant who was the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics from 2014 to 2016.

“They’re underprepared, but they’re put into the typical course sequence anyway. And we’ve done this at the expense of other mathematics, like quantitative literacy, or statistics, that is vitally important, and maybe more important for some careers.”

Just last month, the NCTM released a report outlining how emphasizing those topics could help more students make a strong transition to college and beyond.

Avoiding the ‘Black Hole’

Madison Area Technical College is one of a handful of institutions that are using the Carnegie Math Pathways classes with high school students as well. That move represents a major new opportunity for students, said Juanita Comeau, the director of the campus’ “Gateway to College” program, available to students who haven’t finished high school.

Quantway 1, known at Madison as “math reasoning,” confers credit for an associate degree, unlike other remedial math classes, Comeau said.

“We have other developmental-math courses that carry no credit,” she said. “I call them the black hole. That’s where you can get stuck.”

At Madison, they stared right into that black hole. Aside from basic algebra—a noncredit course equivalent to 8th grade algebra—the college offered elementary algebra, a credit-bearing class that covers high school-level material. Only 22 percent of the elementary-algebra students in the Gateway program were earning Cs or better. Two in 10 of those in the lowest-level course, basic algebra, couldn’t earn Cs.

Three years after introducing math reasoning, 58 percent of the Gateway students were completing the class—a tougher course, with college credit—with grades of C or better.

Those numbers suggest that more conduits through college are opening up, said Steve Burns. He teaches the math-reasoning course to traditional college students at Madison Area Technical College, as well as to students working toward their high school diplomas and associate degrees in the Gateway program.

Some of his students have a history of doing well in math, but couldn’t finish high school on time for a variety of reasons, such as illness or family crises. They can flourish in math reasoning, he said; some have even moved into the college algebra sequence to pursue STEM-related courses of study, Burns said.

Those who struggle more in math, and aren’t planning STEM careers, can rebuild their foundational skills in math reasoning, and complete the second-semester course, quantitative reasoning, so they qualify to earn associate degrees, and to transfer those credits to the University of Wisconsin.

“Having that separate path is good for my non-STEM students,” Burns said. “Instead of wandering through three semesters of algebra, they can do math that’s useful in the real world, useful for their intended majors.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2018 edition of Education Week as Avoiding a Remedial-Math Roadblock to a Degree


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