Dropping the Algebra Requirement: a Solution, or a Surrender?

August 8, 2017

The Cal State system, which enrolls almost half a million California students, will no longer require them to pass Intermediate algebra. The decision may have been necessary, but it raises unsettling questions about the prospects of a diverse STEM workforce.

It’s reasonable to see Cal State's move as a simple case of education Realpolitik. Too many students get stuck in the bottleneck of intermediate algebra, a remedial course that delays their progress, drains their bank accounts, and raises dropout rates—all without conferring college credit.

Such august organizations as The Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, and Jobs for the Future have endorsed the move, arguing that other math courses are more appropriate for students who don’t plan to major in STEM fields. Their logic is compelling: Why uphold the idea of intermediate algebra for all when it stands between so many students and college graduation?

And yet the move risks exacerbating the very problems that forced administrators’ hands in the first place. If past is prologue, many poor and minority students will avoid intermediate algebra rather than fail it.* The Cal State System’s change could effectively codify the informal sorting mechanisms that have long kept those students out of STEM fields.

Cal State’s move could also send a message to high schoolers, their parents, and their schools that algebra is too hard for some students--and not that important, anyway. Poor and minority teens, many of whom have never met anyone in a STEM field, may well take that message to heart. If so, they are essentially taking themselves out of contention for many of the nation’s highest-paying careers.

This is not a call for Cal State to uphold the principle of algebra for all at the expense of the many thousands who cannot complete the course. High ideals don’t amount to much if they don’t offer real help to real people. Rather, the end of algebra for all in so many colleges and universities underscores the urgent need to expand math education opportunities in K-12.  

Too many poor and minority students face barriers in their communities and schools that all but destine them to opt out of intermediate algebra. Many start Kindergarten behind, and their elementary and middle school teachers say they lack support to teach math. Teachers are less likely to recommend high-achieving minority students for gifted programs or algebra in eighth grade. Poor and minority students are much more likely to attend schools that don’t offer advanced math. Indeed, of the roughly 41,000 black and Latino high schoolers who had the potential to succeed on AP math and science tests in 2014, only half actually took them.

It may be necessary—at least for now—to surrender to the harsh realities that drove Cal State’s decision. Yet we still need to uphold challenging standards in K-12. Ensure that teachers of math have the support they need. Give students more and better counseling about the courses they need to take for different careers. Help schools prepare students for AP classes and tests. Coax more STEM majors into the classroom, particularly in poor schools. The list goes on.

Yes, this is a tall order, but the decision to drop math requirements should never be a signal that we’re giving up on preparing every high school graduate to pursue a STEM degree in college if she chooses to do so. All too often, we limit, rather than expand, students' options.

Tags: minorities, math, standards