June 2017

At Cal State, Algebra Is a Civil Rights Issue

At Cal State, Algebra Is a Civil Rights Issue

In this 2017 commentary in EdSource, Opportunity Institute President Christopher Edley, Jr. expounds on the “dirty secret” of arbitrary math requirements and why exclusionary math policies may violate the Equal Protection clause of the California Constitution as well as the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Noting evidence showing that alternate pathways such as statistics and quantitative reasoning provide students a rigorous foundation for college success, he urges higher education leaders to eschew algebra-intensive math requirements.

The next civil rights court battle for California higher education may be about algebra.

California State University is finalizing new system-wide math policies as part of an initiative to increase graduation rates and address equity gaps. But a recent move by CSU affecting students transferring from community colleges threatens to undermine community college efforts to do the same.

The culprit is Intermediate Algebra, a high-school level course of technical procedures that most college students will never use, either in college or in life. Many students pass a course on this content in high school (Algebra II), but when they arrive at a community college, more than 80 percent are required to take remedial courses repeating this material if they don’t score high enough on a standardized test. And the problem is, most community college students don’t take just one remedial course. To meet the Intermediate Algebra standard, they are often required to take two years of remedial courses that don’t count for transfer credit at CSU. By contrast, a CSU student who is required to take remedial math at CSU does not have to demonstrate intermediate algebra competency in order to take credit-bearing math courses.

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