California State University students successfully completing quantitative reasoning classes as first-year students has renewed the debate into whether CSU applicants should complete an additional year of that class in high school.

The Cal State Board of Trustees learned Tuesday that more first-year students are completing the university’s general education math and quantitative reasoning classes, such as statistics or computer science.

Students who would have taken remedial math prior to 2018 are now able to get additional support to take college-level math classes such as algebra and calculus or quantitative reasoning courses that fulfill the college math requirement. Students have been able to take the courses with additional support such as tutoring and time management assistance.

In fall 2017, the last year when CSU could offer non-credit remedial courses, only 63% of first-time students completed a quantitative reasoning class. By fall 2018, 74% of first-time students completed the course. And by fall 2019, the completion rate increased to 77%.

By completing the math course, more students were on track to their degree.

The increase in students completing quantitative reasoning courses — thanks to the additional support some students receive — renews the debate on whether CSU should adopt an admission requirement for an additional year of high school quantitative reasoning. Students could fulfill the requirement by completing an additional year of math, as well.

High school math standards

The state requires two years of math for a high school diploma. CSU now requires three years.

The fact that students are completing the quantitative reasoning courses with support rather than take remedial courses underscores that students are arriving at CSU unprepared by their high schools for college-level math even though they have to take at least three math courses, such as algebra and geometry, to meet the so-called A-G requirements to apply to CSU and the University of California.

Education leaders agree that increasing high school math standards is the right way to go. The only question is whether CSU should implement it by requiring an additional year of quantitative reasoning for admission or if the state should make a third-year or more of math a requirement for high school graduation.

Audrey Dow, senior vice president for the Campaign for College Opportunity, a statewide policy and advocacy organization, said the positive progress by CSU’s freshmen in completing the college’s quantitative reasoning courses shows that the university system is doing a “fantastic job” in preparing those first-year students who need additional help in math.

“That’s where CSU should focus its energy,” she told EdSource. “Once they’ve been admitted, the system says they’re ready for a CSU education. So how do we support them to get through (to college graduation). “She urged CSU trustees to analyze the issue and be cautious about adding a fourth year to the A-G requirements.

In 2019, the CSU Chancellor’s Office proposed requiring a fourth year of high school math, or a quantitative reasoning class, for admission to better prepare future students. That proposal would go into effect in the fall of 2027 and impact students who graduate from high school in 2027 or later.

Last year, CSU trustees delayed formally voting on requiring an extra year of high school math or another quantitative reasoning class for freshman admission to study the impact of such a change. The trustees will vote in 2022 on the issue following an independent analysis by MDRC, a nonprofit and nonpartisan education and policy research organization. That analysis will examine how the policy change potentially affects students of color and low-income students.

Wait-and-see mode on possible changes

“While our commitment to academic preparation is strong, our path forward regarding the quantitative reasoning requirement has not yet been determined,” Chancellor Joseph Castro said during the trustees’ meeting. “When the study is complete … we will carefully analyze the data and bring a recommended course of action before the board at that time. And I’m confident that we will find a viable path forward that will increase both access and success for all California students.”

Although the decision won’t be made until next year, CSU pointed to a recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California, which reviewed high school district graduation policies for 2018 and found higher math graduation requirements were associated with better outcomes in high school that could lead to higher likelihood of graduating and attending a four-year college, particularly for students in high-need, high-poverty, and high-Black and Latino populated schools. The higher math standards did not lead to lower high school graduation rates or higher dropout rates.

PPIC found that 59% of school districts already require three or four years of math for graduation, and they enroll nearly 70% of the state’s K-12 population.

“When we’re looking at those districts with higher requirements and districts with large shares of high-poverty, high Black and Latino populations and districts with students of non-college educated parents, they’re as likely to have these higher math requirements as other districts,” said Niu Gao, a research fellow with PPIC and lead author of the report.

Gao found that detail surprising because typically high-poverty and high-minority districts have fewer resources and fewer qualified teachers because of staffing challenges, she said.

The PPIC also found more positive effects when districts had higher math standards regardless of background and demographics. According to the report, the higher standards are associated with a 4.2 percentage point increase in student enrollment in advanced math courses in high school and a 2.8 percentage point increase in A-G completion rate.

Trustee questions new requirements

Some critics of CSU’s proposal have argued that increasing standards would hurt Black and Latino students’ ability to get into the university system.

CSU trustee Peter Taylor said he’s against any argument that students of color will not meet the challenge of higher math requirements.

“My entire life I’ve seen this white guilt hand-wringing over kids of color can’t achieve,” he said. “That’s complete BS. They can achieve. Set the standards high, help them with wraparound services, and they will meet you every step of the way.”

Gao said PPIC didn’t specifically examine CSU’s proposal to increase A-G requirements for admission.

Dow said the organization is opposed to CSU’s proposal but supports California increasing its minimum math requirements for high school graduation. By increasing the A-G math requirement, CSU runs the risk of reducing the number of students who complete those requirements, she said.

According to the campaign, more than 60% of Black, Latino and Native American high school graduates attend under-resourced high schools that do not offer enough opportunities to complete the A-G courses currently required for CSU admission. (The PPIC report only surveyed district high school graduation requirements, and not individual schools.)

Dow said the better solution is for the California Legislature to alter state high school graduation requirements from two years of math to three. California has one of the lowest math graduation requirements in the country. Of the states that have minimum math requirements, at least 44 states mandate at least three years of high school math for a standard diploma to graduate, according to a 2019 Education Commission of the States report.

“The CSU trying to dictate requirements for high school is not the role of the CSU because they have no ability to ensure equitable implementation of such a policy, and they don’t have the ability to offer resources to high schools to implement it,” Dow said.

Gao and the PPIC report also recommend that the state consider raising its math standards and providing additional funding, support, and technical assistance to those school districts that don’t have the higher standards.

Ultimately, the issue still needs further study, trustee Diego Arambula said.

The PPIC report does say “increasing (California) high school requirements would improve access and success,” Arambula said. “But I don’t’ know if we can necessarily say increasing the A-G requirements would do the same.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.

Ashley A. Smith, EdSource