In summary

A new study found that California colleges are doing a middling job of directing students toward optimal and up-to-date options for math courses.

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By Pamela Burdman and

Pamela Burdman is the executive director of Just Equations, a nonprofit focusing on the role of mathematics in ensuring education equity,

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Rogéair D. Purnell, Special to CalMatters

Rogéair D. Purnell is an education equity researcher and evaluator with special attention to community college student success,

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College students are savvy tech users, navigating “smart” websites like Amazon, YouTube and Netflix that point them to options consistent with their past purchasing or viewing history. 

But what happens when they need to make decisions using less sophisticated college websites? When it comes to math courses, our recent study found that California colleges are doing a middling job of directing students toward optimal and up-to-date options. 

This pattern could undermine recent reforms designed to modernize mathematics offerings and accelerate students’ progress toward degrees. Since students’ math experiences send powerful signals to them about their academic potential and self-worth, it’s important that the course enrollment process be transparent and not discourage students from pursuing math-intensive fields or from taking a math course needed to graduate. 

Math often serves as a gatekeeper to academic majors and to college admission, disproportionately impacting students of color and others marginalized by the education system. New policies in California are helping address these obstacles and accelerate college students’ progress into required college mathematics courses. 

Students at California Community Colleges and California State University campuses are eligible for college-level math courses, with additional support available for those who need it, rather than being required to take placement tests that assign them to remedial courses. They are also free to take any gateway math course relevant for their intended major, not just traditional STEM-oriented courses like College Algebra and Precalculus. Research has demonstrated that such approaches vastly improve students’ momentum toward degrees. 

Unfortunately too many students attending the two California higher education systems encounter misleading and even inaccurate information on college websites. These obscure signposts and unexpected obstacles could jeopardize their ability to make appropriate math enrollment decisions this fall.

For Crossing Signals: What College Websites Tell Students About Taking Mathematics we analyzed 17 California Community Colleges and five California State University websites to better understand how students learn about and access various math pathway options. Besides being difficult to navigate, we found many of the sites misdirect students toward remedial math classes that are no longer required. Overall, there is a general lack of transparency around math course alignment with specific majors.   

An increasing number of student stories illustrate the promise of the new approaches. Take Mariam Shamon of San Diego: After being stung by the criticism of a 9th-grade geometry teacher, she dreaded math throughout high school and when she enrolled at Cuyamaca College. That changed once she had the opportunity to take a college statistics course with extra support, known as a “corequisite” course. Not only did she pass, she discovered a love of math, switched her major from political science to engineering, and later transferred to Cal State San Diego.

All students need to be equipped, like Shamon, with accurate information that supports evidence-based practices. Students need guidance in choosing a math course relevant for their intended major. 

Nearly half of the California Community Colleges websites we studied directed students to a math assessment webpage or center even though placement tests are no longer required. And many community college websites gave the false impression that remedial courses are required or recommended by listing remedial prerequisites in course descriptions. 

Although California State University websites were generally easier to navigate, they too offered students limited math guidance. Most CSU campuses still require various placement or proficiency tests for advanced courses like Calculus, even though CSU jettisoned its systemwide remedial math placement test. These tests could also serve as deterrents for students to pursue a STEM field.  

College websites have the power to support or detract from students’ abilities to make informed choices about their math courses and pathways, as a majority of students nationwide begin their fall studies online. 

With so much research behind new mathematics reforms, it’s critical that the online tools colleges and universities use give more students, especially those marginalized, the opportunity to progress through college and earn a degree. 

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