California State University System’s Math Problem
By WILLIAMSON M. EVERS, ZE’EV WURMAN September 23, 2019
The education bureaucrats in California have a public-relations problem. State education officials sold the Common Core K-12 academic standards to skeptical parents with the officials’ promise that kids would be “college- and career-ready.” California State University administrators sold abolition of remedial classes to incoming students and their parents with the administrators’ promise that without having to take these classes, students would graduate from college sooner. Now the CSU faculty is unhappy—the incoming students don’t know math, even at the most basic level.
State officials promised that high school graduates would be college-ready. In fact, they are not college-ready in math. Isn’t it cheating taxpayers to promise one thing and provide much less?
In the fall of 2018, CSU abolished its remedial freshmen courses in English and math, with the explanation that this change would raise graduation rates. Instead of remediation, students were supposed to take—for full credit—new courses that include both the regular and the remedial material. CSU officials assured us at the time that this new policy was not about dumbing down expectations but rather giving students a leg up while maintaining the rigor.
How such a miracle was supposed to be accomplished was left unclear. Teaching a double-dose course and expecting better results strains credulity. And, at the same time CSU made another decision about expectations for its students. For decades, in order to graduate from CSU, students had to take Intermediate Algebra, which was a general education requirement. CSU dropped this requirement and has allowed students to take less-analytical non-algebra-based math courses instead. So much for the promise of “not lowering expectations.”
Suddenly, we hear now that CSU is considering beefing up its admission requirements with a fourth year of high school math, since its faculty now feels three years are insufficient for incoming students. CSU’s explanation? “The goal of the change is to better prepare students for success at CSU and to enable more students to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) majors once they enter college.”
That sounds positive and reasonable on its face, yet the extra-year math requirement is not for STEM-related math such as trigonometry or pre-calculus, but a “Quantitative Reasoning” course. What is meant by that? parents are asking. CSU officials and faculty say they want incoming students, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, “who can figure out if they can afford a credit card, determine whether the new furniture will fit into their apartment, understand if they should buy or lease a car and even explain why greenhouse gases cause climate change.”
An observant parent would certainly ask: What is the connection between what is clearly a consumer-math course and better preparation for STEM. The short answer is: There is no connection.
Independently, various civil rights organizations started to raise a ruckus arguing that any additional admission requirement will make life more difficult for marginal students and place another obstacle on their path to a degree. They are right, yet we didn’t hear any organization ask a different question: How is a consumer-math course supposed to prepare more students for STEM?
The plot thickens. In 2010, California adopted the Common Core standards. Experts warned that its expectations are below California’s prior 1997 academic standards in math. To make things worse, our Legislature in its infinite wisdom declared students who passed Common Core’s mediocre tests were “college ready” by fiat, and forced CSU to accept such students without remediation, even before remediation classes were eliminated.
To illustrate the foolishness of this decision, in 2014, the last year before Common Core tests, fewer than 22,000 California students qualified as “college ready” in math. In 2015, the first year of the Common Core test, more than 45,000 students were labeled qualified, and the number has grown since then to more than 56,000 today. Clearly such a big jump overnight indicates not an increase in student readiness but the lowering of the passing bar.
Lowering the bar is detrimental to students because it gives them the illusion of college-readiness, when they are not in fact ready.
But CSU was stuck. The state sets its budget, and the state insisted on CSU accepting many such unprepared students. CSU tried to figure out how to raise the preparedness of incoming students, and it hit on the idea of requiring a fourth year of high school math. The natural path would be to require courses more demanding than the 11th grade Common Core test, such as classes in pre-calculus or AP statistics. Yet this path was impossible, as it would expose the fact that Common Core is low-level, while California politicians and the California Department of Education have argued for years that Common Core is “demanding and has a high-level of expectations.” So in a classic “a camel is a horse designed by a committee” outcome, CSU has proposed requiring an additional and meaningless consumer-math course, raising the ire of various constituencies in the process.
WILLIAMSON M. EVERS is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Educational Excellence at the Independent Institute.
ZE’EV WURMAN is Chief Software Architect with MonolithIC 3D Inc. and former senior policy adviser with the Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.