As initiatives to expand college math course offerings beyond the traditional algebra-intensive pathway have gained attention over the past decade, questions have persisted about how the presence of expanded pathways would influence equitable opportunities in STEM. The chief concern has been that the availability of new options such as statistics could unintentionally track students—especially students of color—with STEM potential out of science and technology fields (which require a foundation in algebra-intensive math), due to implicit bias or other structural inequities.
Though this claim is sometimes a red herring, given that the traditional math sequences have served relatively few students well, the valid fear of creating an alternate “separate but equal” route through math provides an important caution: Don’t use new math pathways to exacerbate inequity in STEM. Rather, use the existence of more options to draw more students into the math courses that match their interests and aspirations, which includes engaging more historically excluded groups in STEM fields. It also means ensuring that students have access to college-level courses.*
Recent research about the implementation of California’s law to limit remedial math offerings in community colleges provides some positive signs that redesigned postsecondary pathways support that goal. At the same time, it underscores gaps in implementation of the current law that have led California’s community college system and equity advocates to join forces in calling for an update.
In its report Community College Math in California’s New Era of Student Access, the Public Policy Institute of California shared several encouraging findings:
Even so, concerns remain, as highlighted by PPIC:
While 92 of the state’s 116 colleges offered corequisite support for entry-level statistics classes, students taking college algebra could access a corequisite at only 48 colleges, with 35 offering corequisites in trigonometry, 26 for applied calculus, and 25 for precalculus. No corequisites for traditional calculus were found. Since some colleges require students to take two or more prerequisites (e.g. college algebra, trigonometry, and precalculus) before calculus, the length of those pathways combined with the absence of corequisite options creates a barrier to STEM entry.
The PPIC findings leave little doubt that laws such as California’s are a cornerstone of postsecondary student success strategies. Refining the law to support further gains should be a no-brainer.
*The term “college level” is used here to refer to courses that confer credit toward a two-year degree and also toward a four-year degree at a California public university. California colleges refer to these courses as “transfer-level” courses. Courses that do not confer credit toward a four-year degree are referred to as “remedial” courses here.
**California colleges tend to group business courses, which require applied calculus, together with STEM courses, which require traditional calculus. Subsequently, the term “STEM” is used as shorthand for business and STEM.
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