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Report Finds Many Community College Students Struggling to Pass Math Courses Needed for Degree

By Dan Fost, EdSource - March 1, 2012

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.

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 released this month, 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.”

To read a longer version of this article, with links to the EdSource report, click the link below:
http://www.edsource.org/extra/2012/consequences-community-college-students/5559.

Source:  EdSource