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Many college students struggle to pass remedial math. Do they need to?

Colleges created remedial education classes to ensure students were sufficiently prepared for more advanced material. But increasingly, there’s a sense that remedial courses are hurting the prospects of the students they are intended to help. As a result, some California colleges and high schools are rethinking their approach to teaching math -- with encouraging results. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Colleges created remedial education classes to help make sure struggling students were ready for higher-level classes. Many students still take those courses. But, increasingly, there's a sense that classes like remedial math are hurting the prospects of the very students schools want to help.

    Only a third of students who are placed in those courses go on to graduate or to complete higher-level math. The numbers are even worse for students of color.

    Hari Sreenivasan has a report for our special Rethinking College series. It's part of our regular Making the Grade segment.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For thousands of college students, like Jose Ceballos, this isn't just a math class. This is a way around a major roadblock to a college degree.

  • Jose Ceballos:

    I feel like my whole perception on math, like, just changed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For decades, Ceballos and others who did poorly in math weren't allowed to enroll in courses like these that count toward a bachelor's degree. Instead, they were placed in low-level remedial courses.

  • Jose Ceballos:

    I hated it. I was like, I don't want to do this.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Victoria Dominguez is Ceballos' professor.

  • Victoria Dominguez:

    I would see them just retaking the classes over and over, the same class.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2016, a study by the California Public Policy Institute found that only one in four students enrolled in remedial math classes were passing. The very courses that were designed to get students college-ready had become barriers to a four-year degree.

  • Reina Schmitz:

    I took it six times, and I couldn't pass it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The passing rate for minority students like Reina Schmitz was particularly troubling. One study showed only 2 percent of Latino students and 1 percent of African-American students in low-level remedial classes passed college math two years after enrolling.

  • Victoria Dominguez:

    They give up. They get discouraged.

  • Christopher Edley:

    Those remedial courses often were a trap.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Christopher Edley is the president of The Opportunity Institute.

  • Christopher Edley:

    People would take them once, twice, three times, still not succeeding, and they'd use up their financial aid eligibility, they'd get discouraged, they'd end up dropping out, and never complete college.

    There's no question that math stops tens of thousands of students who would otherwise do fine in college from getting to the goal line.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Hoping to stop students from dropping out of college, California legislators passed a new law that requires community colleges to offer alternatives to remedial classes, like the statistics class Jose Ceballos' attends at Citrus College.

    What's the difference now that you're doing?

  • Victoria Dominguez:

    So, what we're doing now is, we added an extra two units to the class. It is extra time. Whatever algebra skills they need to be successful in statistics, they get it right when we are teaching the statistics concepts.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dominguez also asks students to set goals, reflect on their behavior, and help each other.

  • Victoria Dominguez:

    How will you change your behavior?

  • Student:

    Just positive thinking, not giving up when you fail.

  • Student:

    When we're learning something new, and instead of like raising my hand and be like, oh, I don't understand, I just like continue to keep going , making myself more lost. So, instead of doing that, I should go to tutoring and ask questions.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some parts of it almost seem like a bit of group therapy, when you're trying to deal with their phobias of math.

  • Victoria Dominguez:

    Exactly right, because they have a lot of common issues. And the more they can talk to each other, they're going to be the best teachers to help them get over those difficult humps in the class.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The intense scrutiny of remedial math in California colleges has led some high schools to rethink their math curriculum.

  • Daniel Gavrilovic:

    I want you guys to come up with at least two statistical questions with more than one variable.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    At Leuzinger High School, just outside of Los Angeles, Daniel Gavrilovic teaches an alternative math class called Introduction to Data Science, or IDS.

  • Daniel Gavrilovic:

    This class was to say, hey, let's look at math from a different perspective, create a new pathway for our students who may have historically struggled with math.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Students use engaging data, often surveys about teenagers, to solve problems that also tell a story.

  • Student:

    Are vegetarians more likely to drink water rather than juice?

  • Daniel Gavrilovic:

    Ah. Are vegetarians more likely to drink water than juice?

    You want to filter out…

  • Student:

    Oh, vegetarians and the beverage.

  • Daniel Gavrilovic:

    And the beverage, OK.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Algebra and geometry are folded into the story line.

  • Daniel Gavrilovic:

    What we see in traditional math, you know, draw X and Y, Y equals M, draw — what's the slope, what is the intercept of the Y-axis, right?

    So they have a visual for the function. Now, in this class is, you're doing the same thing, but now that data visualization actually has a story behind it. There's meaning behind the visuals.

  • Reagan Logan:

    With the story, we can actually come up with things that we're interested in. So, you put your life into math, and make it better.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    IDS was created by the California Math Project at UCLA. The course satisfies college expectations for algebra.

    Kyndall Brown is the executive director.

  • Kyndall Brown:

    If a student takes IDS and is successful, you will get credit for passing algebra one and algebra two. And algebra two is a big stumbling block for a lot of students.

  • Reagan Logan:

    I hated algebra two. Like, it was the worst class ever to me.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Christopher Edley says algebra two is more than a stumbling block. He says the subject has become a civil rights issue.

  • Christopher Edley:

    Here's the civil rights principle. If you have a policy that affects one group in a far different way, more burdens, more obstacles than other groups, then you need to have a justification for choosing that policy.

    The arbitrariness of imposing an algebra two hurdle is disproportionately painful to poor kids and to minority kids, the kids who are less likely to have had effective math instruction.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Edley, the former dean of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, who got his undergraduate degree in mathematics, says colleges should reassess math requirements for students who do not plan to major in the STEM fields.

  • Christopher Edley:

    They're not really based on evidence. It's really an agreement about what it means to be an educated person. And a century ago, it was Greek and Latin. Today, it's apparently the quadratic formula.

    I appreciate the importance of math more than most, I believe, but I also appreciate the importance of opportunity.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Not all educators want to do away with algebra two requirements.

  • Kyndall Brown:

    Algebra two is pretty abstract, but I'm a little bit leery of just kind of eliminating it. And I just think we need to really think about who needs it, how it's being taught, how do we expose students to the content, regardless of what class they take.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As for Citrus College, the number of students passing college credit math has doubled with the new classroom format, and Jose Ceballos is in the top of his class.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in California.

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