Lowering math standards not the answer

Higher ed students need better high school preparation or better remedial instruction when they arrive

IN HIS PERSPECTIVE PIECE in the Spring 2014 issue of CommonWealth (“To fill our talent pool, fix remedial education”), Higher Education Commissioner Richard Freeland expressed  concern at the number of college students who are placed into developmental math courses and fail to progress. We agree that far too many students are in developmental math courses. However, the problem is not where they are placed, but why they are placed there: They arrive in higher education seriously deficient in basic math skills. The Board of Higher Education’s solution is to ignore the problem and eliminate mandatory placement testing for students with a high school grade point average of 2.7 or higher.

Commissioner Freeland begins his article with an anecdote about a Middlesex Community College student named Jonathan who couldn’t complete a remedial Algebra I course and, as a result, gave up on the course and college. We share his concerns, but strongly disagree with the remedies he proposes. In particular, we take issue with the following statements in his article:

“Today, every student who registers for community college takes a standardized math test called Accuplacer before walking through the door—sending nearly two-thirds of them to remediation. Yet many educators have questioned the validity of this test as an absolute barometer of student readiness for college-level work. With research showing that high school performance can be more predictive of college readiness, the board has removed the Accuplacer requirement for placement to allow campuses wishing to do so to experiment by using other indicators, especially high school GPA, to make more accurate assessments.”

Are these educators who question the validity of Accuplacer math professors? We and many of our math colleagues find that Accuplacer, when used appropriately, is quite accurate in identifying students who need developmental work. The board has provided absolutely no evidence that high-school performance is predictive of readiness for college-level math classes. They plan to use an overall high school GPA of 2.7 to exempt students from placement testing. This is extremely misguided for two reasons. First, it includes all classes, not just math, so a student who received a D- in every high-school math class could be exempt from placement testing. Second, in an era of grade inflation, it sets an extremely low achievement level. The College Board’s 2013 State Profile Report for Massachusetts provides information about the high school GPAs of college-bound seniors. The average GPA of those who provided this information was 3.23. Only 13 percent indicated that they had GPAs below 2.7.

Freeland writes further: “Some faculty fear that the new approaches encouraged by the board may in essence ’dumb down‘ the curriculum. Others worry that the new math pathways may turn into a de facto tracking system that will be a disservice to at-risk students from low-income and underserved communities. Still others argue that the solution lies in improving the K-12 system.”

The faculty “fears” that he dismisses are absolutely justified. On a short-term basis, it may look like things have improved because fewer students will be in developmental classes. In the long-term, the 2.7 GPA standards for college readiness will either dumb down the curriculum or lead to high failure rates in real college-level math courses. And at-risk students will be encouraged to select majors with minimal quantitative requirements and effectively be tracked away from STEM or other careers with even modest mathematical elements.

Massachusetts is a national leader K-12 math education. But too many students still arrive on our campuses unable to handle college-level work in mathematics. That’s the real issue that must be addressed.

Freeland writes that the state’s higher education board “has asked campuses to reimagine the one-size-fits-all pathway traditionally governing general education requirements in math. Today, students are guided through a single progression of math courses heading toward calculus.”

This may have been true 40 years ago. We are disappointed that Commissioner Freeland repeats this false claim. If he had examined course catalogs for our state’s public higher education institutions, he would have seen the multiple pathways that he espouses. If he had contacted our institution, he would have learned that we have three mathematical pathways that do not require calculus. These pathways include statistics, math for liberal arts, and a sequence for future elementary teachers. In fall 2015, we will offer 20 sections of courses in these pathways, and only seven sections in the calculus sequence. We use different placement criteria for the different pathways.

“At community colleges, students arrive unprepared for the rigor of college courses at a staggering rate: 65 percent of students entering community colleges place into remedial math,” writes Freeland. He adds, “The failure rates among students taking semester-long developmental courses is alarmingly high.”

We agree. That’s why, at Worcester State University, we have worked to address these concerns. We cut the number of students needing developmental math in half through awareness activities. Students who take Accuplacer now know that it’s important. They take the test seriously. We’ve improved the quality of our developmental offerings so that success rates in these classes are around 80 percent. We did this by setting a clear standard and providing a support system so that students can meet that standard. (For more details, see here.)

Meet the Author

Meet the Author
The Board of Higher Education’s new policy is based on recommendations of their Developmental Math Task Force. Sadly the task force’s report doesn’t mention our successful program despite their being provided with details. This omission suggests there was an agenda to dismantle current programs regardless of their level of success. (Our critique of the report can be found here.)

Like Commissioner Freeland, we want more students prepared for “high-skilled” STEM careers. However, if developmental math courses are eliminated, students who lack basic skills will be placed into courses for which they are ill-prepared. Such students will either fail to progress or will be passed through a dumbed-down version of the course. On the other hand, in our successful program, we have seen students begin in developmental courses and graduate in quantitative fields (for an example, see here). The Commonwealth needs to address the problem of mathematical readiness, not sweep it under the rug.

Richard Bisk is a professor of mathematics and Mike Winders is an associate professor of mathematics at Worcester State University.