Published Mar. 23, 2014
By Ty Beaver, Tri-City Herald
At right, Nicole Pogue, 30, listens as adjunct instructor Jeff Griffins
reviews a math lesson during a Friday Math 105 class at Washington State
University Tri-Cities. Some higher education officials said a large
number of freshmen enrolling at their schools are not prepared for
college-level math, putting them at risk of not finishing their degrees.
Math professors and tutors at Columbia Basin College in
Pasco are seeing an increasing number of students lacking math skills,
Higher-level math courses are being replaced by more
sections of low-level and remedial math classes. Instructors and tutors
are seeing students struggle with basic arithmetic such as fractions.
expect people to come in from high school and just know how to do some
things," said Curtis Crawford, a CBC associate math professor.
in math endangers a student's ability to succeed in higher education,
and the CBC board has taken the issue head on, visiting with local
school boards to offer help and guidance, while suggesting students take
math every year of high school.
The state requires three years of math to graduate.
are a lot of theories as to why students are struggling in math, and
school officials question whether students are not taking advantage of
opportunities in high school or whether college expectations are
"For the vast majority of careers, you don't need
much math besides algebra and some geometry," said Richland
Superintendent Rick Schulte.
Math graduation requirements
Washington high school students are required to take algebra 1, geometry and algebra 2 to graduate.
lawmakers, seeking to better prepare Washington students for careers in
science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, increased
the required math credits for the Class of 2013 and beyond in 2007. That
happened after a battle over the cost of providing that one additional
course for each student, said Ben Rarick, executive director of the
Washington State Board of Education.
"In our minds, we have just completed an immense undertaking to get on par with other states," he said.
school students in Washington also are required to pass an
end-of-course, or EOC, exam in algebra or geometry to graduate from high
school. Only about half of the state's students passed the algebra EOC
last school year, with about 76 percent passing the geometry exam.
Kennewick students are near the state average on those exams, while more Richland students pass them and fewer Pasco students.
one out of four new students enrolling at Columbia Basin College for
the fall term from 2009-12 had college-level math skills based on
placement testing, according to data provided by CBC.
graduates are identified by their specific Tri-City high school, the
highest achieving schools produced one student out of three ready for
the rigor of college math.
That's a problem, college officials
said. It means those students have to pay for remedial classes that
don't count toward their degree, requiring them to stay in school
longer. All that adds up to make a degree harder to earn.
'Math skills are perishable'
officials have said they aren't telling the districts how to educate
students and insist local schools are doing a good job. However, CBC
board President Duke Mitchell has suggested several strategies, such as
having students take a math credits their senior year or take more math
"We're not saying you should require it but students
could be encouraged to take four years of math," Mitchell told the
Kennewick School Board recently.
It's a strategy the college's math faculty said would be a step in the right direction.
skills are perishable, said Virginia Tomlinson, CBC's executive dean
for arts and sciences, and they do fade if they aren't regularly
practiced, as the Kennewick School Board's student representative
pointed out during a recent meeting.
"I stopped math for a month
before calculus and I forgot a lot," said Kaylee McClure, a Kamiakin
High School senior. "I think you should require it for four years."
Districts have taken steps to improve math proficiency.
Pasco School District is emphasizing math instruction in its middle
schools to better prepare students for high school, said Assistant
Superintendent Glenda Cloud.
Kennewick is pushing students to
take more advanced math at younger ages. However, college faculty said
that can contribute to the problem, as students get more math out of the
way before high school graduation and then have more years when they
opt not to take it.
Many seniors, especially those continuing
their education after graduation, are already taking math all four years
of high school, district officials said. But some of those seniors are
taking remedial math their final year just to catch up. Requiring they
take more math than already required could endanger their ability to
"The direction is good. We should have rigor," said
Richland Assistant Superintendent Todd Baddley. "But is every student
How much math is needed?
There are also
concerns about how much math most students need and whether they and
their families understand the level needed for some education and career
STEM careers in the fields of engineering, health care
and other sciences may require higher math but most other jobs, from
running a business to construction, don't require much beyond algebra
and some geometry, school officials said.
Preparing students for
higher education is critical, Kennewick school board member Ron Mabry
said at a recent meeting, but each student takes a different path and
can fall behind realizing what it is he or she wants to do.
"That's the purpose of a community college, to prepare you (for higher education)," Mabry said.
math isn't offered at Washington State University Tri-Cities but Danny
Talbot, the chancellor's chief of staff, said that hasn't been a problem
with the university's freshmen.
"We tend to get a group that is pretty well prepared," he said.
a large portion of WSU Tri-Cities students are transfer students from
CBC, meaning they've met the educational requirements, such as in math,
to continue their coursework.
Part of the problem is cultural, CBC
faculty said. Some students enroll at the college thinking it will be
easier than taking classes at a traditional four-year university,
Crawford said, though he teaches the same material as the universities.
Students also may not think math is important for their future job or
"A lot of students don't see the value (in math)," said
Gabriela Whitemarsh, a math tutor and director of the Math Engineering
Science Achievement, or MESA, program. "But you need to give yourself
Many students have become overly reliant on calculators
to perform basic arithmetic, Whitemarsh said, and they sweat bullets
when asked to do simple problems in their head. Overall, many students
have an aversion to math because it can be difficult to understand and
they get discouraged.
"A lot of times learning is hard and not
fun," said John Spence, another CBC associate math professor. "But you
have to make mistakes."
State school board
officials say math proficiency is a top priority and the state's minimum
graduation requirements could see refinements. That's especially true
as the Common Core State Standards, new math and language arts
benchmarks being adopted in many states, are fully implemented.
"This isn't just about math, it's about using senior year as a launching pad," Rarick said.
no immediate plan to increase state math requirements, state officials
said. District officials haven't specified what action they would take
after hearing from Mitchell and other board members.
math faculty said they're happy to see the issue being discussed, since
more students realize math is going to always be a part of their lives.
"They need to prepare themselves," Whitemarsh said. "You can't get around doing the work."
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