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One Less Hurdle For California Transfer Students Beginning In 2018

Cuyamaca College math teacher Terrie Nichols helps students in this undated p...

Credit: Cuyamaca College

Above: Cuyamaca College math teacher Terrie Nichols helps students in this undated photo.

The California State University system is eliminating a math requirement that, for many, has made transferring to a four-year university a pipe dream.

The California State University system may have just ended a problem that has dogged community college students for years. It is eliminating a math requirement that, for many, has made transferring to a four-year university a pipe dream.

Beginning in Fall 2018, the CSU system says non-math and science majors will not have to take intermediate algebra before transferring to one of its campuses.

To get from community college to university, students can take one of two math routes: calculus for math and science majors or statistics for humanities majors. Intermediate algebra is the gatekeeper for both, and about 65 percent of the students who need to pass it don’t, according to the California Community Colleges system.

“Allowing students an alternative to be able to demonstrate certain math competency we think is a good idea,” said Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services for the San Diego Community College District.

Many educators have framed this discussion as an equity issue, saying the course blocks mostly students of color from pursuing unrelated degrees.

Black and Latino students are significantly more likely than white and Asian students to test into intermediate algebra or below. And the shorter they fall of the intermediate algebra benchmark, the more likely they are to drop out without a degree.

“I call it the remedial pipeline of doom,” said Cuyamaca College math teacher Terrie Nichols. Intermediate algebra is a remedial class for which students do not earn transferable credit.

Nichols said in the 2013-2014 school year, just 4 percent of Cuyamaca students who started in the lowest remedial courses eventually clawed their way through transfer-level math for a shot at a college degree. There are three levels of remediation.

“That means out of every 100 hopeful souls that put forth the effort, time and energy — and money — to go to college, we only let four through a transfer-level math class and tell the other 96, ‘Give up on your dreams and go home.’”

Cuyamaca did away with intermediate algebra a full year before the CSU announcement. The CSU offered waivers to schools that collected data on their efforts.

Last year, Cuyamaca students in the humanities skipped remediation altogether and enrolled in statistics. Like the CSU plan, math and science majors took intermediate algebra, but the school phased out its lower level remedial courses. The classes were structured so teachers could give students more individualized support.

The result: Last year, 47 percent of students who tested into the lowest remediation course passed a transfer-level math class, compared with 4 percent three years earlier. Of all students needing remediation, 67 percent passed transfer-level math classes, compared with 10 percent before the change.

“By pulling them out of that pipeline, we are eliminating the equity gap at Cuyamaca College,” Nichols said.

In addition to making changes for transfers, CSU campuses will take a similar approach with their students. The Legislative Analyst’s Office says 43 percent of CSU students need remediation in math, English or both. Three-quarters of community college students and 23 percent of University of California students do.

The CSU will phase out English and math placement tests for freshmen and funnel them into higher level classes with added supports.

Some argue waiving intermediate algebra is not the solution and could track traditionally disenfranchised students away from math and science fields.

Neault said she’s waiting to see how the policy shakes out but, so far, doesn’t see any downsides.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said 47 percent of students needing math remediation went on to pass transfer-level math classes under a new Cuyamaca College program. It was actually 67 percent. The lower number was for students needing the most remediation.

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