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A new report suggests that calculus prerequisite sequences across the California State University system are too lengthy and could pose a barrier to students who need to complete calculus as a stepping-stone to earning STEM degrees.

The report, released today by Just Equations, an organization focused on equitable math education, analyzes prerequisites in the 23-campus system and draws on interviews with math leaders from eight CSU campuses. It found that, while calculus prerequisite sequences vary by campus, students face “long on-ramps” to calculus courses. For example, one campus required students to take up to four semesters of math before taking calculus. Some campuses also offer multiple prerequisite pathways to calculus courses, which can confuse students and cause them to take less efficient routes, according to the report.

The report also notes that the CSU system did away with remedial courses and placement tests, but most campuses still heavily rely on standardized placement tests for students who plan to enroll in calculus.

CSU campuses, however, offer students a wide range of supports, including credit-bearing courses with extra academic support, courses that stretch one semester of content over two semesters and summer bridge courses, the report noted.

The report recommends campuses be more transparent about the prerequisites needed to take calculus and make sequences as short as possible, with appropriate supports. It also suggests further research on calculus prerequisite pathways.

“We know from existing research that remedial courses, especially lengthy sequences, are linked with reduced student success and exponential attrition. It is time we investigate calculus prerequisites for the same reason,” said Marcelo Almora Rios, the lead author of the report and a research fellow at Just Equations. “If we want to increase diversity in STEM fields, we must question practices potentially rooted in deficit perspectives of students.”

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