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Go Figure: Exploring Equity in Students’ Postsecondary Math Pathway Choices

Colleges and universities around the country have been reforming their mathematics requirements, rejecting the traditional one-size-fits-all mathematics courses in favor of a range of options that align with students’ fields of interest. But as the changes lead fewer students to take traditional algebra-intensive courses, some worry that the new pathways could reinforce inequities: Rather than ignore that concern, new pathways need to be intentionally designed in ways that ensure they are not being used to track students of color away from majoring in lucrative STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

To examine that design challenge, Just Equations’ latest report, Go Figure: Exploring Equity in Students’ Postsecondary Math Pathway Choices, is a preliminary look at how California students are choosing their math courses and pathways. Led by Rogéair D. Purnell and focused on one California State University campus and two community colleges, the study had this overarching question at the core: Does implementation of new math pathway strategies increase and support math success for students, particularly those who are historically underrepresented on college campuses and in STEM-related majors/fields?

In the report, Purnell and co-author Pamela Burdman  highlight significant barriers for students navigating the selection process. These range from structural barriers, like limited access to or knowledge of available supports, to personal barriers like math anxiety. 

Accuracy of information about math pathways and their alignment with programs is especially important, for students as well as for the counselors who are advising them, the report notes. And, as colleges emphasize self-placement, accuracy of information is especially important, as are strategies for addressing the prevalence of math anxiety. 

“Although the self-placement process attempts to remove biases and opportunities for misguidance, it may need to be designed more explicitly to address math anxiety since negative math experiences can cause some students to unnecessarily elect lower-level courses or avoid STEM options…,” the authors explain. “Counselors will continue to be a critical and important force in fighting inequities in math success. However, to do so, they will need additional expertise in implementing culturally-relevant and equity-focused approaches as well as knowledge about newly developed math pathway options.”

Future studies by the Just Equations research team will more deeply examine strategies that open doors for college students, especially marginalized students, in accessing and choosing the math courses that are right for them. 

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