CBC seeing more students struggle in math

Ty Beaver, Herald staff writerMarch 23, 2014 

Math Jeff Griffins B

At right, Nicole Pogue, 30, listens as adjunct instructor Jeff Griffins reviews a math lesson during a Friday Math 105 class at Washington State University Tri-Cities. Some higher education officials said a large number of freshmen enrolling at their schools are not prepared for college-level math, putting them at risk of not finishing their degrees.

TY BEAVER — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Math professors and tutors at Columbia Basin College in Pasco are seeing an increasing number of students lacking math skills, they said.

Higher-level math courses are being replaced by more sections of low-level and remedial math classes. Instructors and tutors are seeing students struggle with basic arithmetic such as fractions.

"You expect people to come in from high school and just know how to do some things," said Curtis Crawford, a CBC associate math professor.

Struggling in math endangers a student's ability to succeed in higher education, and the CBC board has taken the issue head on, visiting with local school boards to offer help and guidance, while suggesting students take math every year of high school.

The state requires three years of math to graduate.

There are a lot of theories as to why students are struggling in math, and school officials question whether students are not taking advantage of opportunities in high school or whether college expectations are appropriate.

"For the vast majority of careers, you don't need much math besides algebra and some geometry," said Richland Superintendent Rick Schulte.

Math graduation requirements

Washington high school students are required to take algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2 to graduate.

State lawmakers, seeking to better prepare Washington students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, increased the required math credits for the Class of 2013 and beyond in 2007. That happened after a battle over the cost of providing that one additional course for each student, said Ben Rarick, executive director of the Washington State Board of Education.

"In our minds, we have just completed an immense undertaking to get on par with other states," he said.

High school students in Washington also are required to pass an end-of-course, or EOC, exam in algebra or geometry to graduate from high school. Only about half of the state's students passed the algebra EOC last school year, with about 76 percent passing the geometry exam.

Kennewick students are near the state average on those exams, while more Richland students pass them and fewer Pasco students.

But one out of four new students enrolling at Columbia Basin College for the fall term from 2009-12 had college-level math skills based on placement testing, according to data provided by CBC.

Even when graduates are identified by their specific Tri-City high school, the highest achieving schools produced one student out of three ready for the rigor of college math.

That's a problem, college officials said. It means those students have to pay for remedial classes that don't count toward their degree, requiring them to stay in school longer. All that adds up to make a degree harder to earn.

'Math skills are perishable'

College officials have said they aren't telling the districts how to educate students and insist local schools are doing a good job. However, CBC board President Duke Mitchell has suggested several strategies, such as having students take a math credits their senior year or take more math in general.

"We're not saying you should require it but students could be encouraged to take four years of math," Mitchell told the Kennewick School Board recently.

It's a strategy the college's math faculty said would be a step in the right direction.

Math skills are perishable, said Virginia Tomlinson, CBC's executive dean for arts and sciences, and they do fade if they aren't regularly practiced, as the Kennewick School Board's student representative pointed out during a recent meeting.

"I stopped math for a month before calculus and I forgot a lot," said Kaylee McClure, a Kamiakin High School senior. "I think you should require it for four years."

Districts have taken steps to improve math proficiency.

The Pasco School District is emphasizing math instruction in its middle schools to better prepare students for high school, said Assistant Superintendent Glenda Cloud.

Kennewick is pushing students to take more advanced math at younger ages. However, college faculty said that can contribute to the problem, as students get more math out of the way before high school graduation and then have more years when they opt not to take it.

Many seniors, especially those continuing their education after graduation, are already taking math all four years of high school, district officials said. But some of those seniors are taking remedial math their final year just to catch up. Requiring they take more math than already required could endanger their ability to graduate.

"The direction is good. We should have rigor," said Richland Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley. "But is every student college bound?"

How much math is needed?

There are also concerns about how much math most students need and whether they and their families understand the level needed for some education and career paths.

STEM careers in the fields of engineering, health care and other sciences may require higher math but most other jobs, from running a business to construction, don't require much beyond algebra and some geometry, school officials said.

Preparing students for higher education is critical, Kennewick school board member Ron Mabry said at a recent meeting, but each student takes a different path and can fall behind realizing what it is he or she wants to do.

"That's the purpose of a community college, to prepare you (for higher education)," Mabry said.

Remedial math isn't offered at Washington State University Tri-Cities but Danny Talbot, the chancellor's chief of staff, said that hasn't been a problem with the university's freshmen.

"We tend to get a group that is pretty well prepared," he said.

However, a large portion of WSU Tri-Cities students are transfer students from CBC, meaning they've met the educational requirements, such as in math, to continue their coursework.

Part of the problem is cultural, CBC faculty said. Some students enroll at the college thinking it will be easier than taking classes at a traditional four-year university, Crawford said, though he teaches the same material as the universities. Students also may not think math is important for their future job or career.

"A lot of students don't see the value (in math)," said Gabriela Whitemarsh, a math tutor and director of the Math Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA, program. "But you need to give yourself options."

Many students have become overly reliant on calculators to perform basic arithmetic, Whitemarsh said, and they sweat bullets when asked to do simple problems in their head. Overall, many students have an aversion to math because it can be difficult to understand and they get discouraged.

"A lot of times learning is hard and not fun," said John Spence, another CBC associate math professor. "But you have to make mistakes."

Math proficiency

State school board officials say math proficiency is a top priority and the state's minimum graduation requirements could see refinements. That's especially true as the Common Core State Standards, new math and language arts benchmarks being adopted in many states, are fully implemented.

"This isn't just about math, it's about using senior year as a launching pad," Rarick said.

There's no immediate plan to increase state math requirements, state officials said. District officials haven't specified what action they would take after hearing from Mitchell and other board members.

But CBC's math faculty said they're happy to see the issue being discussed, since more students realize math is going to always be a part of their lives.

"They need to prepare themselves," Whitemarsh said. "You can't get around doing the work."

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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