Colleges take on more math responsibility

TACOMA - More of the burden of teaching math to Washington's young people is falling on two-year colleges, as students graduate without the skills they need to tackle college math.

Nearly half of the high school graduates who continue their education at Washington's community and technical colleges are enrolling in remedial math classes, college officials report.

At Tacoma Community College last year, that translated into 4,000 students enrolled in Math 90, an algebra class usually taught in ninth grade. The college was forced to offer about 130 sections of that remedial math class to meet student demand.

Tuition pays for about a third of the cost of providing such a course; the state pays the rest.

"It's a cost to the student, the college and the taxpayer," said Tim Stokes, the college's vice president of instruction.

Mind the 'gap'

The "math gap" isn't a new problem, but as lawmakers debate graduation standards and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, this expensive issue is getting more attention. Nearly half of the class of 2008 failed the math section of the statewide test.

This year's juniors are supposed to be the first class required to pass all three sections of the WASL to graduate from high school, although a number of bills are being discussed in Olympia this year that would postpone the math section of the test.

"In Washington and nationally in the past decade, there's been a growing attention to the notion of college readiness, of trying to get more high school graduates ready for college-level work," said Bill Moore, policy associate for assessment, teaching and learning for the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

A bigger issue

Moore, who is coordinator of the state's Transition Mathematics Project, which is trying to write new math standards for the state, said the "math gap" is a complex problem that is part of a larger cultural and societal issue.

"People will happily admit that they're not good at math," Moore said. "So, if you have parents with those attitudes, that affects public perception about how much math you need."

Another issue is that the state requires high school students to take only two years of math, and those two years do not have to be algebra and geometry. Legislators and policymakers are discussing increasing the math requirement, but no one is sure whether the state can attract enough math teachers to make the high school courses available.