Will Dumping Math Requirements Increase College Grad Rates?

Ongoing debate has pitted advocates of eliminating mandatory college algebra classes to boost graduation rates against those saying math education needs reform.

HetchingerEd is offering a rather radical proposal to increase the number of American students who graduate college: dump math. Specifically, the argument is that since many college students, a disproportionately large number of them of an African-American or Hispanic descent, are unprepared to tackle college-level mathematics courses, they might be stymied by a requirement that all those receiving a degree from a particular institution must pass the freshman version of the course.

A fifth of students entering a four-year college don’t have the needed math skills to pass the course and are forced into remediation. Nearly half of community college freshmen find themselves in a similar situation. This delay makes it much less likely that they will be able to graduate on time — or graduate at all. Only a tenth of community college students who take remedial college courses finish their college programs in 3 years, and only a third of four-year students complete theirs in 6 years.

Those statistics come from a report on remediation published in April by Complete College America. The report’s numbers suggest that math requirements may be the primary obstacle to graduation for many students: In many states, a larger percentage of students enroll in remedial math courses than in remedial English courses.

These numbers ignited a debate among education experts with many calling for better algebra preparedness in high school, while an increasingly loud minority suggesting that colleges do away with universal math requirements altogether.

Weighing in on the latter side was the recent New York Times op-ed by Andrew Hacker called “Is Algebra Necessary?” In it, Hacker makes an argument, well-buttressed by statistics, that the math requirement in New York City’s community colleges where he has been a teacher since 1971 is the main reason why students fail to graduate in a timely manner or drop out before completing their degree programs.

Hacker is not alone in advocating for the elimination of algebra, at least from the college curriculum. The Complete College America report suggests placing “students in the right math.”

“Most students are placed in algebra pathways when statistics or quantitative math would be most appropriate to prepare them for their chosen programs of study and careers,” the report’s authors argue.

Jacob Vigdor, in a report from the American Enterprise Institute, takes the opposing side of the argument, saying that the solution lies not with abandoning the teaching of algebra, but altering the way it is taught. Specifically, he believes that introducing algebra to students in 8th grade is too early, and what they receive is a vastly dumbed down survey of the subject designed to aid in understanding.

His evidence includes a program in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district aimed at increasing the number of eighth-graders taking algebra; students there who took algebra earlier scored much lower on an end-of-year exam than students who didn’t, he notes.

Pushing algebra down to lower grades also alienates students who are able to grasp the concepts more easily, leaving fewer to be interested in pursuing math, as evidenced by the decline in math majors, according to Vigdor.

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