What Math Do Students Need For College Success?


By Pamela Burdman

California’s education systems, from K-12 through college, need to revamp their math policies to make them better coordinated and less likely to create arbitrary barriers to college success, according to my policy brief released last week by LearningWorks.

Large numbers of California students end up in college remedial math sequences that diminish their chances of graduating. Research has revealed that some of these students could succeed in required college-level math courses without remediation. There is broad agreement that college graduates need quantitative reasoning skills to understand and apply quantitative concepts in various contexts. But the current set of inconsistent and opaque math requirements across public high schools, community colleges, and public universities by default screens some capable students out of colleges, majors, and careers.

More than three-quarters of California’s community college students and about a third of those at California State University, including a large proportion of students of color, are assigned to remedial math courses. These courses, intended to boost students’ progress, instead have been shown to represent obstacles, especially at community colleges. To reverse the trend, the brief calls on California’s education systems to work together to provide all students with a foundation in quantitative reasoning.

“Education leaders increasingly have grown concerned about the extent to which required math courses serve as impediments to students’ educational progress and degree completion,” noted Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks, an organization that aims to strengthen student outcomes in college, in releasing the brief. “Our intention is for this brief to deepen policy discussions across schools, community colleges, and public universities about how math requirements can support, rather than hinder, student achievement.”

The policy brief, Quantitative Leap: How Math Policies Can Support Transitions To and Through College centers on three shortcomings with current math policies — dueling definitions of proficiency, inaccurate means of measuring students’ skills, and insufficient opportunities for students to acquire these skills before college – and recommends changes in each area.

I wrote it in response to a November 2015 summit on math readiness that brought together educators, education leaders, and policy experts from across California. The summit grew out of my 2015 series, Degrees of Freedom, which highlighted research on the inherent dilemmas in current math policies. For example, fewer than 30 percent of community college students who take remedial courses ultimately complete a math course required to earn a degree or transfer to a four-year university. In addition, the tests used to place students in these courses have limited efficacy.

Remedial courses are like medical treatments in that they can have harmful side effects. They are useful only if the underlying condition is properly defined and diagnosed. The education systems can do more to improve students’ quantitative reasoning levels while avoiding over-prescribing remedial courses.”

To make this “quantitative leap,” I offer three recommendations in the brief:


  • Quantitative reasoning expectations across California’s education systems should be reasonably consistent, evidence-based, and well-aligned with students’ courses of study so that they don’t constitute arbitrary barriers to academic progress.


  • To remove unnecessary barriers to college completion, higher education institutions should rely on evidence to ensure the validity and efficacy of assessments and other placement measures that determine students’ readiness for college-level quantitative reasoning courses.


  • High school students should have sufficient opportunities to prepare for college-level work (and avoid remedial courses) by taking appropriate math courses. While ideally the K12 math curriculum would be designed to do just that, currently there is a need for senior-year transition courses for students who otherwise would not be on track to be college ready.


These changes can help set the stage for the effective instruction, high quality textbooks, robust student supports, and strong professional development necessary for enhancing students’ quantitative reasoning skills in high school and college. The recommendations focus on ways the education systems need to work together to eliminate the misalignment and policy incoherence that place needless obstacles in students’ way.

 Pamela Burdman is an education policy analyst focused on college access, readiness, and completion, and a fellow at the Opportunity Institute. Previously, she was a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.



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