Boosting Math Standards

Public college systems in Maryland, Kentucky and New York increase admissions requirements or placement thresholds for credit-bearing courses in mathematics, a subject in which many entering college students are ill prepared.
December 21, 2009

Aiming to improve student proficiency and achievement in mathematics, multiple systems of higher education have recently raised either their minimum standards for admission or their benchmarks for enrollment in credit-bearing courses in the subject.

The University System of Maryland made such a revision to its undergraduate admissions policy two weeks ago, when its Board of Regents approved a measure requiring that entering students take four mathematics courses in high school instead of the previously required three: algebra I, geometry and algebra II. The policy revision also requires that students take a mathematics course in the senior year of high school, even if they have already completed algebra II. These advanced students must take a course at or above the level of algebra II, potentially exposing them to calculus-based courses but preventing them from taking lower-level statistics or discrete math courses.

William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the system, said that numerous research studies have shown that high school students who do not take mathematics in their senior year perform at a lower at a significantly lower level in college mathematics and are more likely to need remediation. Though there was undisputed agreement among the board members that the number of required mathematics courses should be increased, Kirwan noted that some board members expressed concern about the requirement that a course be taken in the senior year.

“Several board members asked, ‘What if you have a prodigy who takes Calculus early in high school and has completed all of the math offerings before his or her senior year?’ ” Kirwan said. “In that case, I noted that the overall admissions process allows admissions officers to make a certain number of exceptions to the minimum standards. This would be a rare circumstance, of course, but we’ll have the flexibility to recognize and address it.”

Maryland’s undergraduate admissions policy stipulates that its institutions may admit, as up to 15 percent of their entering freshman class, “students who do not meet the minimum qualifications … but who show potential for success in postsecondary education.” The advanced student in Kirwan’s example would have to apply for an exemption to seek admission to a college in the system.

About 30 percent of incoming students to the Maryland system require remediation in mathematics, Kirwan estimated. Once the new admissions standards go into effect -- which they will for students entering ninth grade in 2011 -- and those affected by it reach college, he predicts that only about 15 percent of the system’s incoming students will need remediation in mathematics.

Kirwan anticipated that these changes will lessen demand on community colleges to teach remedial coursework, as students better prepared in mathematics begin to enter the system. He said, however, that he suspects that the changes could create capacity issues for the state’s high schools, especially if they are not offering enough sections of mathematics to help their students meet these new standards.

“Our high school completion standards and the minimum standards for admission to our system are not one and the same,” Kirwan explained. “But, our standards do tend to drive high school completion standards. I’d like to see them more evenly matched."

Kirwan speculated that a number of institutions around the country would make similar changes to their admissions policies as a result of the Common Core Standards Initiative, a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association that aims to better align high school and college curriculums so that more students leave K-12 ready to do college-level work. Given that many incoming college students are often ill prepared in mathematics, he said it should come as no surprise that many institutions are considering admissions changes regarding the subject.

"I think is going to be a national trend eventually," Kirwan said. "It’s the right thing to do, if we want America to be more competitive.”

Major changes are also afoot in Kentucky, where the state’s higher education coordinating body recently raised the threshold students must achieve on a standardized test to place into credit-bearing mathematics courses.

Next fall, all students must earn at least a 19 on their ACT in mathematics to enroll in a credit-bearing course, up from the current cut score of 18. The change was made after a statewide developmental education task force reported that experts had noted that the state’s current cut scores were “too low, especially in mathematics.” In addition to raising the cut score, the panel also recommended that the state develop common placement exams beyond that of the initial ACT score “to identify the specific level and areas of underpreparation for an individual student.”

This change to the cut score will increase the demand for remedial mathematics courses around the state. With the current cut score of 18, 30 percent of the students who entered the state’s institutions in 2006 required math remediation. With the new cut score of 19, that figure would rise to 38 percent, based on the same 2006 entering cohort.

Sue Cain, coordinator of developmental education and the college readiness initiative for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, said a number of four-year institutions in the state are considering raising their admissions standards so that they will not have to offer remedial courses. In Kentucky, she noted, each public institution must provide remedial coursework to any students it chooses to admit. Practically, this means all but the state’s two research institutions -- the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville -- offer numerous remedial options for their students because their admissions standards allow for students who need remediation.

Cain noted that the state’s institutions have been experimenting with offering “accelerated” remedial courses, lasting anywhere between six and eight weeks, that speed students to credit-bearing courses sooner, making them more likely to succeed. Still, in some circumstances, a number of these four-year students may choose to take remedial coursework at a nearby community college to save money.

By next fall, Cain explained, all of the state’s high schools will have “transitional” mathematics courses in which students would be taking a state-designed placement test that would trump a low ACT score if passed. She noted that the state’s work to define “college readiness” at all of its high schools, like the move to increase minimum admissions standards in Maryland, was also inspired by the Common Core Standards Initiative.

A newly minted state law, calling for more accountability in the state’s K-12 and higher education institutions, set some ambitious goals that Cain and others hope the recent change to the cut score and the "transitional" high school mathematics courses will help them meet. It calls for the state "to reduce college remediation rates by at least 50% by 2014 from the 2010 rates and increase the college completion rates of students enrolled in one or more remedial classes by three percent annually from 2009-2014."

“I’ve worked my entire life to work myself out of a job,” Cain quipped. “And I know that there are many people, like me, who are trying to work themselves out of the developmental education business. The attitude of cooperation, collaboration and partnership has put us ahead of many states here in Kentucky.”

Though its plans are still in the early stages of development, the City University of New York system is also eyeing changes to its method of determining whether a student is prepared for college-level mathematics. There are currently three ways that a student can test into credit-bearing mathematics courses: a satisfactory SAT score or COMPASS score or having passed one of the two New York State’s Regents Examinations offered in the subject. The state is currently introducing a third Regents Examination in mathematics.

Alexandra Logue, executive vice chancellor at CUNY, noted that the system is considering requiring students to pass two Regents Examinations in mathematics instead of one. The other options for testing into credit-bearing courses would remain the same.


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