A Calculated Move: Clark Hopes Shorter Math Track Will Raise Graduation Rates

Lack of confidence + history of struggling with numbers + complicated course structures + academic fatigue = thousands of students never meeting the math requirements for their degrees.

That’s why Clark’s Math department will aim to raise graduation rates, address inequity and set the stage for Guided Pathways by compressing its pre-college process — in which the credits don’t count towards a degree — from four to two quarters starting this summer.

According to math professor Kate Cook, the new track will consist of Math 092 and 096. Cook is teaching the first trial-run 092 unit this quarter, with an additional 096 class and an online 092 unit scheduled for Spring, all before the first official 092 class in Summer and a full rollout next Fall and Winter.

“It’s pretty quick for such a big rollout,” Cook said. “But we don’t want people who already have textbooks and schedules and skills to have to switch paths and not complete the one they’re on.”

Currently, the most common path for students who are placed into pre-college level math is a sequence of Math 030, 089, 091 and 093, starting from wherever the ALEKS test places them. This means if a student is placed in 030, it takes a whole year to meet the prerequisites for college-level classes, which are required for all degrees.

“A lot of the students that were testing into 030 were just rusty on their fractions and decimals,” Cook said. “Especially when we say you can’t use a calculator … I mean in my regular life outside of teaching, I don’t normally use algebra or factoring or calculus to complete my grocery list or clean my house. So if you don’t use it, it fades.”

For many, testing into Math 030 presents an impassable obstacle. Only 10 percent of students placed into the class in Fall 2016 have finished their college math credits according to Clark’s department of Planning and Effectiveness.

To address the low numbers, according to Mathematics division chair John Mitchell, the department set up a three-quarter pre-college accelerated track seven years ago, and another two years ago focused on preparing liberal arts students for Math in Society, or Math 107. Mitchell said about one-fourth of math students take 107.

“But the pass rates didn’t go up,” Mitchell said. “Most people went into the accelerated sequence whether or not it was a good fit … They’d end up taking three quarters anyway because they would have to take, for example, Math 090 twice and then take 095.”

Cook said 092 mostly covers the same things as 089 but has the basic arithmetic outcomes of 030 built in. 096 finishes preparation for 107 and most other “gateway 100-level” classes. But for STEM and business students, the gateway 100-level classes will include additional “corequisite remediation,” or supplemental instruction, where pre-college material is taught side-by-side with college-level work through additional face-to-face or online teaching hours.

“It’s helpful for students because they’ll learn the pre-college concepts as they need them,” said Mitchell. “So they won’t have to worry about losing that skill before it’s relevant. But it’ll look the same on transcripts and have the same outcomes as the college level class.”

Mitchell said the trial run is funded through a College Spark Grant, a state grant for innovations in education. Any costs after that, he said, the college considers an investment in higher graduation rates, which lead to more community interest, better enrollment and better state funding.

He said he thinks other schools are keeping an eye on Clark to see how this new structure works.

“What we’re doing is kind of a novel approach in this region,” Mitchell said. “But one we’re seeing nationwide, where the pre-college sequence focuses more on college readiness, not high school remediation.”

He said the change comes with a focus on contextualizing the content and having classes emphasize group work over lecture time. He said this mentality is reflected in the names of the new courses: Applied Elementary Algebra and Applied Intermediate Algebra.

“The most powerful indicator of how successful it is, is that when time’s up, nobody wants to leave,” he said. “Everyone is just engrossed in these calculus problems and they’re talking about it excitedly in groups as they leave.”

One such student was Ryan Whetstine. Originally placed in the Developmental Education course Math 021 in 2011, Whetstine now studies mathematics at Portland State University and tutors students at Clark’s math center, which he’s done since passing Math 093 almost eight years ago.

Whetstine said he was never good at or interested in math before college, but at Clark one of his professors, Luanne Lundberg, helped him understand it.

“Testing so low, I felt bad about myself,” Whetstine said. “I thought at 18 years old, I should at least test into 089 … I like procedural things, and [college-level math] is really procedural. It’s more final than say an English paper, where you finish and you have to keep editing and making drafts. When you’re done [with a math problem], you’re done.”

But Whetstine is an exception. Mitchell said many students have a hard time in classes because a teacher or formative experience has convinced them that they’re fundamentally bad at math.

“Part of our opportunity as teachers is to help them separate from that,” he said.

And some groups of students need that help more: according to Planning and Effectiveness, students of color are less likely to move on to college-level math, with only 5 percent of black students completing the pre-college courses in one year as opposed to 12 percent among students in general.

According to Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Loretta Capeheart, students of color disproportionately end up in lower levels of math placement because of lower-quality education in middle school and high school, racism in schools and harsher academic punishments.

Mitchell said racial and socioeconomic hurdles follow students to college.

“It’s hard to be successful if you’re hungry,” he said. “Or worried about your financial situation or your family life is not stable, that makes it hard to sit down and think just about algebra … There are two big factors in a student getting to college-level, one is that they’re prepared to let go of whatever stories they have about themselves, and the second one is that they’re prepared to accept the help and guidance of the community.”

Cook said the new courses will include information on good study habits, Clark’s tutoring centers and how to read a syllabus, “skills not just for math, but for anything.”  

Clark’s Advising department is also preparing to guide students through the new courses according to Director of Advising John Maduta. He said advisor training and changes in paperwork to reflect the change will likely begin next quarter.
“There’s always a background knowledge in advising that we tell students to take background skills like math and English early on,” Maduta said. “We’ve seen anecdotally that students who do those in the first year are far more likely to graduate.”

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