College remedial math courses still needed

MU will start using an online placement exam
Thursday, December 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Starting in the spring, incoming students at MU will have their math skills tested using an online placement exam instead of one taken in person on campus.

The on-campus test will be discontinued next fall. Most students will take the test in the spring or summer prior to attending MU Summer Welcome, MU math professor Ian Aberbach said.

The need for remedial math at the college level continues; this semester, 10 percent, or about 600 students, have been enrolled in Math 0110, the catch-up course at MU, Aberbach said. That number is the same for this time last year.

MU math professor Adam Helfer said remedial courses "are not really college-level courses, and there's no getting away from the fact that it is make-up work."

Math educators at MU and elsewhere largely attribute the need to inadequate math curriculum in high school. Helfer said professors at MU are concerned with the way math is taught in K-12 education.

"The big question is how we decide to set policy for math education in the state," Helfer said. "There's no question that people on all sides are sincere and want the best for the children. How do we decide which policy is better justified?"

Helfer said decisions on how to set curricula have been made on the basis of the March 2008 National Mathematics Advisory Panel report.

"In designing the curriculum and in measuring what works and what doesn't, we need oversight from the professional scientific community — in particular, from cognitive psychologists and mathematicians," Helfer said.

Designing K-12 math curriculum is a nationwide debate, he said, and if students fail to learn the material in one grade, they continue to fall behind.

"The problem can really snowball, and we just make it bigger if we wait until high school to try to tackle it," Helfer said.

The question of curriculum comes into play just weeks after a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics found that Missouri uses some of the most stringent standards for evaluating its students in math and reading. The report showed that Missouri has the second most difficult standards set for math at the fourth-grade level and the fourth most stringent math standards for eighth-graders.

In May 2008, more than 50 math professors at three Missouri universities sent a letter urging the state to match its K-12 math education standards with those set out in a national report. The main concern was that college students were not prepared for college algebra and were taking more remedial math courses as a result.

Aberbach said the letter was sent to the Missouri departments of Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education. The result was a review and revision of math standards, but the changes were never adopted because Missouri joined a national common standards effort. There no longer was a need for a state standards document, Aberbach said.

"All states signed on to the national effort will adopt the standards that are decided at a national level," he said. "Up until this point, every state has had its own standards."

In Columbia Public Schools, a debate over curriculum has centered on single-subject approach versus the integrated approach. The single-subject method uses algorithms and step-by-step sequences to find answers to math problems, whereas the integrated approach encourages students to use real-world analogies to solve equations. Parents and educators have been torn between which method to use to teach students.

Columbia students in grades eight through 12 currently can choose whether to take single-subject or integrated courses.

Although curriculum contributes to how prepared students are coming into college, it is not the sole factor in determining whether a student will take remedial math as a freshman.

"MU goes off of ACT and SAT scores, dual credit from high school and AP exam scores, if students take it," Aberbach said.

Similar views in Nebraska

Intermediate algebra, considered a step lower than college algebra, is offered at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — one of several peer institutions to which MU is compared based on a number of statistics. Intermediate algebra is taken by fewer than 10 percent of the incoming student population there, said Cheryl Kane, who coordinates the pre-calculus program.

Kane said all incoming students are required to take a math placement exam, which can be taken up to three times to get the best score possible. She said high school curriculum can often hinder a student's ability to do well in college math courses.

"Students who don't take rigorous math courses in high school are at a disadvantage," she said. "Those not good at the high school level aren't given the opportunity to develop. The courses don't expect enough of them."

Kane also said many students don't take the placement exam seriously and, therefore, don't perform well.

"There's a lot of math phobia still out there, and students are concerned about getting in over their head or they have limited expectations of their own abilities," she said.

Kane said math educators in Nebraska also are concerned about curriculum and preparing students for college level math. Nebraska-Lincoln has a program called "Math in the Middle," which is a master's degree program for middle school teachers that emphasizes comprehensive math topics and improving math instruction.

Nebraska-Lincoln changed its admissions policy several years ago to require four years of high school math — at least two years of algebra-based and one year of geometry-based math, Kane said.

"When that changed, some schools added a pre-calculus course, some a calculus course, some watered down their math curriculum to teaching the same topics in four years that they used to teach in three," she said.

Kane said the university is also looking to online options for students. She will teach an online college algebra course for the first time this spring. A pre-calculus course has also been tested, and a brief calculus course will soon be offered.

"Our hope is that students who don't have the option of taking a higher level math course in high school or through a local community college will use this option to 'beef up' their math skills so that they don't need a remedial course," she said.

College algebra in the mix

Other peer institutions, such as Colorado State University and West Virginia University, also use placement exams to determine which college math course students should enter. Anita Pattison, associate director of the pre-calculus program at Colorado State, said about 60 percent to 70 percent of students who take the placement exam are eligible to start in college algebra or a higher course.

"College algebra is the gateway course — it gets you into higher level math," she said.

Pattison said community colleges are responsible for teaching remedial math classes if students aren't placed in college algebra at Colorado State.

She said that in 2002, 67 percent of incoming students were eligible to enter college algebra based on the results of their first placement exam attempt. In 2009, 72 percent of students were eligible.

"After looking at a few years of statistics, it seems they're a little bit better prepared," she said.

Pattison said fewer students are taking the placement exam because they bring in math credit from community colleges or AP courses in high school.

Eddie Fuller, math chairman at West Virginia University, said college algebra is the lowest level class available for credit, but roughly 700 to 800 students are placed in pre-college algebra per year at the university.

Aberbach said MU also offers Math 1100 (college algebra for calculus-bound students) and Math 1120 (college algebra for non-calculus bound students). Math 1120 will be discontinued next fall.

"We'd love for everyone to come in and take a calculus course, but that's not the expectation for every student," he said. "Any student considering serious work in the sciences, technology or engineering ought to come out of high school fully prepared to take a calculus course."

Helfer echoed the sentiment, noting math is a cumulative subject and students should understand that.

"Students (and their schools) need to know that when they come to college they should have good algebra, geometry and trigonometry backgrounds," he said. "They should expect that they will have to remember material from one year to the next."

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Alan Cook December 20, 2009 | 6:19 p.m.

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

Alan Cook

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.