algebraic equations on notebook paperAccording to Rosanna Xia and Teresa Watanabe of the LA Times, educators in California are currently debating the level of math necessary for a student to attain an associate degree or transfer to a four-year college. This is according to an article by Rosanna Xia and Teresa Watanabe, contact reporters for the Los Angeles Times. Currently, the state of California requires all community college students to complete a course in intermediate algebra before they can graduate. However, this one-size-fits all math requirement has attracted criticism from some educators because 3 out of every 4 community college students in the state cannot pass the placement exam, forcing them to take additional semesters of remedial math. Even worse, the additional semesters ultimately discourage and frustrate most students, causing them to drop out of college without ever earning a degree. Our algebra tutors can tell you firsthand that algebra is one of the most common subjects that students of any age need help with.

Current Requirement

For a community college student to transfer to California State University, the student must complete an approved, quantitative reasoning course with “an explicit intermediate algebra prerequisite.” The California Community Colleges system raised the algebra requirement for enrolling in an associate degree program in 2009. Since then, any student who wishes to pursue an associate’s degree in California needs to demonstrate competency in Intermediate Algebra or another mathematics course at the same level.

Ian Walton, the president of the state’s Academic Senate at the time, says it was necessary to raise the algebra requirement from elementary algebra to intermediate algebra because students in high school study the former and universities require the latter for transfer admission. In other words, community college students needed to be more proficient in algebra compared to high school students. Algebra helps students develop quantitative thinking, but it may be unsuitable for students pursuing majors that do not necessarily use traditional algebra. For this reason, the Academic Senate recommended reformers should replace algebra with a mathematics course of same level whenever necessary. Unfortunately, educators have been unable to identify suitable courses and curricula that can adequately replace algebra, with many innovations proving controversial.

The Debate

According to a popular 2015 study commissioned by LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education, the change from elementary algebra to intermediate algebra has caused the number of college students enrolling in college developmental (remedial) math to soar. The study says college students are increasingly spending resources on high school materials despite research showing that these courses do not necessarily contribute to student success. Moreover, statewide efforts to provide additional tutoring or more remedial help have been largely unsuccessful. At the same time, attempts to replace algebra with mathematics courses focusing on computer science, statistics, data analysis and other curricula more suitable to, say, a psychology or political science major have proved futile because such courses lack rigor and would likely be rejected at a four-year university. The proponents of intermediate algebra, on the other hand, believe the course is a necessary path for high-paying science, math and engineering careers. Overall, the debate pits older educators who believe in intermediate algebra against younger educators who would wish to find alternative mathematics courses that would help make students more successful.

Possible Alternatives

Some schools such as the Pierce College and College of the Canyons have experimented with different programs that can help students obtain “college-level” quantitative reasoning skills. Such programs include programs developed by the California Acceleration Project and the Carnegie Foundation’s Statway. These program feature courses in data analysis and statistics specifically designed to help students attain college-level quantitative reasoning without necessarily completing a traditional intermediate algebra course.

Traditionally, colleges in California have used algebra to help students develop “college-level” quantitative reasoning skills, which are necessary for a student to transfer to a four-year college or earn an associate’s degree. However, some younger educators believe other courses and curricula can help students achieve this goal and more importantly, improve college graduation rates.