We’re basically saying math is a continuum from algebra to calculus …. It’s somewhat arbitrary that we’ve chosen that to be mathematics to represent to students. Why aren’t we doing topology? Why aren’t we doing graph theory? Or combinatorics?
— Rochelle Gutierrez, 2018
Workers in jobs that don’t require Algebra 2 may need an understanding of math-related areas that high schools don’t commonly teach, such as data fluency and financial literacy.
— Anthony Carnevale, 2021
We should update the principle that algebra is a civil right by asking, instead, whether the purposes and benefits of requiring Algebra 2 justify the reduction in opportunity.
— Christopher Edley, Jr., 2018
These words—from an education professor, an economist, and a legal scholar—strike a chord for many of us non-mathematicians who wonder why traditional algebra plays a dominant role in school mathematics, especially when there is more relevant and compelling content such as data science and probability. Do polynomials really deserve their privileged status in the curriculum?
The typical answer: It depends whether students are pursuing majors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The assumption is that courses such as Algebra 2 and Precalculus are necessary in these fields, because they are stepping stones to Calculus. But, recent analyses point to a need to rethink our assumptions about the role of advanced algebra prerequisites even when it comes to STEM success.
Consider this new report by Craig Hayward of the Research and Planning Group: Using data from the California Community Colleges, it demonstrates that students who did not take Algebra 2 in high school are better off skipping remedial algebra and going straight to a college-level math course.*
Among Fall 2019 community college students with that profile who took remedial intermediate algebra (the equivalent of high school Algebra 2), only 8 percent passed a college-level math course that articulated to one of California’s public universities. Starting out in a college-level math course was far more effective. Among students taking a STEM math course, 30 percent ultimately passed a college-level math course. And among those who had declared a STEM major, more than 40 percent did so.
These findings echo Lexa Logue and colleagues’ research about students who tested into remedial algebra courses at the City University of New York. As part of a random assignment study, a subset of the students were placed into statistics courses with supplemental or “corequisite” support instead of remedial algebra. The statistics students were not only more likely to complete their math requirements, they were 50 percent more likely to graduate from CUNY within three years. (And looking only at students who pass the course to which they were assigned, the researchers debunked the notion that statistics students performed better only because that class is easier—looking just at students who pass whichever course they took, the stats students were still 39 percent more likely to graduate.)
Logue et al. also show that the statistics students were more successful in their higher-level math classes—even classes like Calculus that build on algebra—than the remedial algebra students. Notably, they say forthcoming research will show higher earnings for the stats cohort than their remedial algebra peers.
Does this mean that Algebra 2 doesn’t prepare students for courses such as College Algebra and Precalculus or that statistics should be a prerequisite for Calculus? Not exactly. Hayward’s research found that the high school Algebra 2 completers (49 percent) outperformed the non-completers (30 percent) in their STEM college math classes. But the non-completers were not helped—and in fact were harmed—by taking a remedial version of Algebra 2.
As Hayward hypothesizes, the real issue may be that remedial algebra courses have a “cooling out” effect, nudging students to lower their aspirations. Isn’t that the purpose of gatekeeper courses after all?
By contrast, the CUNY statistics corequisite courses and the CCC college-level STEM courses show the possibility of eschewing gatekeeping and instead “warming up” students for future success.
These patterns are particularly important in California. Current state law forbids colleges from placing students into remedial courses unless there is evidence that doing so will enhance their likelihood of success. Though some colleges persist in enrolling students in remedial algebra courses, it will be difficult for them to continue doing so in the face of the new research. Of course, we’d like to see math success rates higher than 30 or 40 percent, but it’s an undeniable improvement over the baseline of 8 percent.
Let’s hope these researchers and others continue to study these patterns, so that we can better understand how course sequences, teaching strategies and assessment practices can support more students in actually learning the math they need for their futures without turning them away in the process.
*I decline to use the term “throughput,” used by Hayward in this report and many others in the California Community Colleges. Though intended to mean the proportion of students who start a math (or English) sequence successfully completing a transferable college-level math (or English) course, the term has the unfortunate connotation of getting students “through” classes without regard for learning.