With long-term consequences, community college students struggle to pass college-level math classes: EdSource Extra, Feb. 7, 2012

In a new journalistic experiment, I wrote a story for the educational nonprofit EdSource to accompany a report on how students at community colleges are having trouble passing their math classes.

With long-term consequences, community college students struggle to pass college-level math classes

Large numbers of community college students are struggling to pass the college-level math classes they need to complete a degree or transfer to a four-year institution, with long-term implications for their futures.

Math instructor, David Ellingson, teaches a course in differential equations at Napa Valley College. Photo by Deanne Fitzmaurice.

Success in these more advanced courses represents a continuing challenge for the 112-campus California Community College system.  Although results in individual colleges vary, completion rates across the system have remained virtually unchanged during the past two decades,

According to an EdSource analysis, in the fall of 2010, 45 percent of students taking college-level math courses at California’s 112 community colleges received a failing grade below a “C” or dropped the class before the end of term.

Especially worrisome to educators are the even lower math success rates among African American students across the system, with a 41 percent course success rate, and Hispanic students, with a 49 percent success rate.

Without the required math courses, students may be permanently handicapped in their pursuit of degrees in higher education.

Arthur Winings, 25, of San Jose, a part-time student who works at an Apple “Genius Bar” dispensing technical advice, hopes that won’t be the case in his so-far elusive pursuit of an associate degree.  He has failed pre-calculus twice, a course he needs in order to earn a degree in Information Systems from San Jose Community College.

He said part of the problem is that math instruction “felt mechanical” in his previous classes.  “I didn’t get an explanation of how the math would be practical,” he said.  But he hasn’t given up and plans to try to pass the class a third time.

Less attention to college-level courses

In the drive to improve community college success rates, most attention has been focused on students taking the remedial or “developmental” courses they need just to be eligible to take college-level math courses.  Much less attention has been devoted to students taking college-level courses for which they need for their degrees.

At a minimum, students are required to pass an Intermediate Algebra class to get an associate’s degree, or demonstrate proficiency on a math placement test.  To transfer to a four-year university, more advanced math classes are required as well.

These realities are forcing community colleges to examine the way they teach math.  At the recent annual conference of the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges in Monterey, math instructors from across the system discussed a range of strategies, including helping students understand math concepts rather than focusing on formulas, and tying math instruction more closely to the courses of study students are pursuing.

Said Santa Rosa Junior College student Jesse Cohen, who has tutored his fellow math students, “Students need more of the why, not only the how and the what.”

Making classes relevant

Making math classes more relevant has become a priority of leading community college administrators. Barry Russell, the community colleges’ vice chancellor of academic affairs, said that in welding classes, for example, many students don’t understand that welding has a “huge of amount of trigonometry in it.”  Math classes, he said, should feature examples specifically related to welding, as well as to other fields that involve math skills, from business to medicine. “If we’re going to require math, then making the connections is more of what we should be about,” Russell said.

The make-up of the community college student population also contributes to low completion rates.  Many students either did not do well in math in high school, or are older and have forgotten what they learned. More than in many other subject areas, students approach math with high anxiety, which interferes with their learning.   Many delay taking a math class until they are too far along in their studies, while others are eager to get the math requirement over with, and end up taking classes beyond their capabilities.

They may also hold down multiple jobs and have children to support, giving them little time to seek extra help.

Some students at risk of failing math admit they are floundering and could use more support.  “I don’t have a great understanding of concepts of math,” said Amelia Meyers, 31, a Solano Community College student enrolled in Intermediate Algebra.  She is a military veteran who didn’t make it through the class last summer and is making another attempt this semester.  But it is tough going, she said.

“When I try to learn it on my own, it’s very difficult,” said Meyers, who is studying for a career in fashion design. “When I ask for help, I don’t get one-on-one help like you’d get in high school.”

Success rates vary

Success rates vary widely depending on the college. For example, 66 percent of students at Napa Valley College successfully completed their college-level math classes in the fall of 2010, and 69 percent did at Merritt College in Oakland. In contrast, at West Hills College Coalinga only 34 percent of students successfully completed their math classes, and only 36 percent did so at West Los Angeles Community College.

Because each of California’s community colleges offers different courses and exams, it is not possible to directly compare success rates among colleges. Variations could reflect differences in curriculum and how courses are taught, how leniently or harshly professors grade their students, and how prepared students are when they begin a class.

When students avail themselves of extra help, it makes a difference.

“I took one calculus course, and it really beat my butt,” said Luis Rodriguez, 20, a student at Napa Valley College, recalling that he got a failing D grade in the course when he took it during his first year.

He then signed up for the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program, which he said offers a supportive “family-like” environment, and brought his grade up to an A the second time around.

The program, which is targeted at “educationally disadvantaged” students, is housed in a windowless basement around the back of a building.  But these less than luxurious offices are crammed with services designed to help students succeed.  Among its offerings are orientation sessions, extra tutoring, counseling, career advice, and field trips to work sites.

Another approach is to offer a more intensive math class that covers more ground more quickly, based on the “immersion” principle adopted in foreign language instruction. Some students now take several courses – from remedial math, through beginning and intermediate algebra – before they can pass the statistics class that they might need for admission to the next school.

“If you have to take four courses before you can transfer, that’s four hoops to jump through, and at every hoop, you lose people,” said Joseph Conrad, chair of the math department at Solano Community College.

Adding to the challenge is that two years ago, the community colleges increased the difficulty of the minimum level of math competency from Elementary Algebra to Intermediate Algebra.

Barbara Illowsky, chairperson of the Mathematics Department at De Anza College in Cupertino and past-president of the California Mathematics Council Community Colleges, said the Intermediate Algebra standards were the result of a 10-year effort.  She said that research showed students from community colleges weren’t advancing in the workplace because they didn’t have the skills they needed to carry out even basic math operations.

When the new requirement was being debated, “a lot of colleges were concerned that some of our most needy students wouldn’t be able to meet the requirement,” said Sue Nelson, vice president of instruction at Napa Valley College.

To help them, Napa expanded its Math Center services, added computers and bolstered tutoring and support groups.   But like all community colleges, it has been hit by severe budget cuts.  Randy Villa, chair of Napa’s Math Department, said the college is down three full-time instructors, and part-time, adjunct faculty members make up  just over half of the department’s teaching staff.

Villa adds that a nearly $4 million, five-year federal grant to increase the number of Latino students who pursue courses of study in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) will make a big difference. The grant will allow his department to add a new classroom and hire a full-time bilingual math instructor, he said, as well as bolster student services and faculty development.

The college has also ramped up its efforts to identify students with learning disabilities. If left undiagnosed, said Rebecca Scott, Dean of Napa’s Library and Learning Center, students are at risk of ending up with a job where, instead of being able to apply math concepts, they will be asking, “Do you want fries with that?”

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