CBC's math problem more than just numbers

It's hard to solve a math problem without the numbers.

So while it's clear Columbia Basin College's remedial math program needs improvement, we're hesitant to prescribe a solution.

A recent study comparing CBC with similar schools identified a serious concern, but few clues about potential remedies.

Of 48 schools surveyed, CBC placed 43rd in an important category -- helping students who need a remedial, high school-level math class go on to pass their first college-level math course.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Mid-Columbia high schools are churning out students who are ill prepared for college level work.

Perhaps the remedial math classes don't align with CBC's college-level courses. For three important courses -- precalculus, calculus and statistics -- CBC ranked at or near the very bottom of that pack.

Perhaps, as CBC President Rich Cummins theorized, the assessment test for new students places them in a remedial class that's beyond their skill level.

The problem -- whatever it is -- doesn't appear to affect CBC students who transfer to a four-year school. At Washington State University, for example, the graduation rate for former CBC students is 3 percent above the average.

What the numbers say about CBC's remedial math program and the overall success of the school's students don't match.

The school needs to find out what's behind the disconnect and fix it. CBC already has indicated it plans a closer look to identify improvements.

The numbers come from course completion rates of more than 300 participating two-year colleges -- meaning only schools that want to participate in the study are included. Not exactly a random sampling.

Of those 300 schools, CBC compared itself with 48 of similar size and located in communities similar to the Tri-Cities.

CBC's efforts to see how it stacks up to other schools are commendable. But some of the key information wasn't available.

For example, the study shows the student-to-teacher ratio, but it doesn't show how what percentage of students come to college needing to take remedial math.

The study seems to confirm, however, that Washington's colleges are not producing enough scientifically minded workers to meet industry's needs.

It's a message we've heard often, most recently from Gov. Chris Gregoire's task force for higher education. Members told the editorial board that business and education agree that new jobs being created now and in the near future will require more education, especially in the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and math).

Brad Smith, a member of the panel and a vice president at Microsoft, told us there is a definite shortage of labor with the right skills.

Even now, unemployment rates in Washington are only 4.6 percent for people with college degrees, compared with 10.4 percent for people who have only a high school diploma.

Looking at the big picture, math classes at high school and the community college level come into focus.

We have confidence CBC will make some accommodations to its math program. We are hopeful the changes will address the problem.

Still, we can't help but feel a little apprehensive about the situation, not just at CBC but across the state.

We want our students to do much more than pass a remedial math class at the local community college.

We want them to love to learn. We want them to ponder and question and analyze. We want them to be thinkers and leaders.

And a math class is a perfect place to start.