Not as easy as 1, 2, 3

Butte College concerned about students struggling with math requirements

At the State of the Community address in the City Council chambers on Feb. 9, community leaders pinpointed the strengths and weaknesses of their respective organizations. During her presentation, Butte College President Kimberly Perry identified the success rate of her math students as one of the school’s biggest challenges.

Of specific concern are students who need to pass core-requirement math classes in order to receive their associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year university. For Butte College students seeking a degree outside a math or science major, Intermediate Algebra is often a difficult final hurdle before graduation.

Samia Yaqub, vice president of Student Learning and Economic Development at Butte College, said students need to tackle math early in their college careers and persist until they get through their core requirements.

“First, students put off math because they find it difficult,” she said. “Second, math is tough because one block builds upon the last in a way that you just don’t see in many other disciplines. Students who assess into low levels in math [pre-algebra and below] are far less likely to get through math than those who start at transfer level or in intermediate algebra.”

The same goes for all of California’s 112 community colleges, as the statewide success rate for math students in the fall of 2010 was just 55 percent, according to a report by the nonprofit education analysis agency EdSource. Butte College is near the head of the pack in that regard, with success rates ranging from 55 percent in beginning algebra to 65 percent in intermediate algebra.

The Math Department at Butte also ranks highest among its peers when measured with the Basic Skills Progression Rate, a metric the state uses to track the percentage of students who are successful in foundational courses and then continue to progress at higher levels. However, there are still too many students struggling with a subject that can seem outside the realm of their regular studies.

A big factor is the gap between math courses most students will experience between high school and college—students are not required to take math after the sophomore year of high school.

“When you think about it, you use writing and speaking skills every day,” Yaqub said. “It’s a rare day when you need to use algebra. These skills atrophy between the time the students finish math in high school and when they take it in college.”

The key, Yaqub says, is getting students enrolled in math their first semester and making sure they are successful, creating “early momentum” that will give them the necessary confidence to build upon their math skills. Students who fail early on can develop anxiety and self-doubt, thereby limiting their chances of succeeding in the next math course.

There are differing philosophies on how to ensure students have the best chance to move on with their education. For the last 12 years, De Anza College in Cupertino has offered a program for struggling math students in which class times are double the standard 50-minute block. The school has reported an 85 percent success rate for students taking intermediate algebra through the program, compared to a 56 percent success rate for students taking regular classes.

While administrators at Butte College recognize the benefit of longer class times—many of the school’s math courses are more than the standard three credits—they have chosen to focus on an “acceleration model” that will strive to consolidate the time students take to complete a string of math requirements.

“Our focus is to limit the number of steps by eliminating those at the bottom, putting students who assess into basic math into pre-algebra and providing them with greater assistance so that they have a better chance of success,” Yaqub said.