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Feedback Sought for Math Initiative

November 7th, 2017

Experts at NIU’s Center for P-20 Engagement are partnering with institutions throughout the state to craft a new transitional math initiative intended to improve the college readiness of Illinois high school graduates.

Funded by grants from the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) and the Illinois State Board of Education, the initiative will create three math courses for high school seniors tailored to students’ college and career goals. The new courses include an algebra-intensive course for those who plan to major in STEM fields, a technical math course for students interested in technical fields and a quantitative literacy/statistics course for humanities and other non-STEM majors. A major purpose of the new courses is to reduce the number of students who need remedial math to enter college.

According to the ICCB, 47 percent of Illinois high school graduates enrolling as full-time freshmen in Illinois community colleges are required to take remedial math courses. This means that those students are required to spend up to two years retaking courses they already had in high school, but they have to pay for the courses and will not get college credit.

Kathleen Almy, a mathematics research associate at NIU’s P-20 Center who is coordinating the development of the statewide initiative, says the goal of all three pathways is to offer highly contextualized courses focused on the student’s college and career path.

“Students will get to solve real problems that they’ll actually face as adults, but with the time and support needed to solve them,” Almy says. “In short, they get to ‘do’ math. It’s akin to getting to play music as opposed to just practicing scales. Working on bigger problems asks more of students in terms of connecting and integrating concepts, which will serve them well in their future classes and jobs.”

“If students are staying longer in college, or possibly not completing college, then that’s fewer people that are getting certificates and degrees who could be going into the workforce,” she says. “So it matters that we can get people on their way and not have math be the thing that slows them down. But it’s also important that we do that in a sound way that does not sacrifice rigor or standards.”

Almy, who has taught math for 20 years, mainly at Rock Valley College in Rockford, says this pattern is part of a nationwide trend: a significant number of high school graduates who have completed the math requirements for high school graduation, but are not prepared for college math.

According to the non-profit organization Complete College America, 52 percent of community college students nationwide need remedial course work. Of those students, only 22 percent complete the remediation and associated college-level courses within two years.

“Because students can get bogged down in developmental math, there are some students who exhaust their financial aid and some students end up leaving college altogether because of it,” Almy says. “We’re trying to reduce that issue.”

The state of Illinois has responded to this nationwide crisis with the Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Act, passed unanimously by the Illinois House and Senate in May 2016 and signed into law in July 2016. The bill is made up of four components designed to prepare Illinois high school graduates for college and careers, one of which is the development of transitional math courses.

“Currently most colleges use a placement test to determine college readiness, and that one test score determines whether a student will need remediation and how many remedial courses a student will need to take,” Almy says.

By contrast, the new system will use multiple measures to determine students’ college readiness in their junior year of high school based on a combination of standardized test scores, grade point average and successful completion of math courses. Students determined to not be college-ready in mathematics may be eligible for a transitional math course.

“The idea is that a student who passes a transitional math course during his or her senior year will get guaranteed placement into certain college-level credit math courses at any community college in Illinois, allowing the student to avoid a placement test and remedial coursework,” Almy says.

A statewide team of teachers, administrators and advisers from high schools, community colleges and universities, including NIU’s Department of Mathematical Sciences, has been working to prepare the math competencies and policies for the Illinois transitional math initiative.

The competencies and policies are now available at Teachers and community members are invited to review the documents and offer their feedback through the website during the public comment period through Dec. 31.