Cal State Scrapped 'Remedial' Math, And So Far Students Are Getting Along Fine

CSU Long Beach professor Jen-Mei Chang (left) teaches a freshman math class. (Courtesy of CSU Long Beach)

Earlier this year, we reported a pretty dismal statistic: in the summer of 2017, more than 2,700 freshmen were dropped from the rolls in the 23-campus California State University system because they hadn't passed their remedial math and English classes in their first year.

Clearly, the system wasn't working — so in 2017 Cal State administrators scrapped the remedial classes and began creating courses and tinkering with existing ones to better prepare students for college-level work. The new approach went into effect last year.

So how's that working out?

Cal State administrators aren't yet claiming victory — but with the second year of the remedial education overhaul underway, they say initial results suggest the effort may be on its way to decreasing the number of students who drop out and increasing the number who reach graduation day.

"The traditional pathway, where we had one route through developmental math for all students, as if they were all going on to take an algebra-based major, was not functional," said CSU Northridge math professor Katherine Stevenson, who oversaw the remedial math program at her campus before it was dismantled.

The approach of the new classes is to remove the assumption that there was something missing in the student's knowledge, place students in college-level classes with non-remedial students, add tutoring, connect the lessons to daily life, and enlist engaging professors to teach the classes.

It's a method that has improved outcomes from students like Sarah Martinet, a Cypress High School graduate attending Cal State Long Beach. She had taken all of the high school math classes to qualify for admission, but after she enrolled she was told that she'd need to take so-called remedial classes in her freshman year to be ready to do college-level math.

"Math has never been a strong subject point for me," she said. "It just doesn't click for me."

The math department at California State University, Long Beach (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Martinet was part of an inaugural class of Cal State freshmen enrolled across all 23 campuses in a new type of class designed to improve their math skills.

"I didn't feel like I was capable back in high school," Martinet said. "And now, after taking Math 94 and 104, I know that I am."

A recent visit to Math 104 on the Long Beach campus revealed the techniques that have engaged students. The math professor, Jen-Mei Chang, kept the class lively while giving students individualized help.

"We really want to focus on developing their reasoning skills, communications, and problem solving in general," Chang said.

Chang teaches her 126-student class in an auditorium but treats it like a 26-student class. She spends very little time behind the podium. Instead, she moves up and down the aisles with a wireless microphone, skipping two steps at a time like a daytime talk show host. She reaches the nosebleed seats and high-fives a student after looking at her work.

Chang says things that may unsettle students accustomed to math lessons that emphasize abstract concepts, formulas, and proofs. "Not every math problem needs to have an answer," she tells them.

Chang says she wants students to put less energy into finding the "right answer" and more on understanding the math concepts at hand, such as comparing complex fractions.

A lesson from a math class at California State University Long Beach. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

"We really designed the course to make it a safe environment to share information," she said after the class. "There are no wrong answers. And a lot of the times in mathematics there are multiple approaches to a question, so we make that known from day one."

About a quarter of the students enrolled in this class are labeled as needing help to become college-ready. The old approach was to place students in remedial-only classes. Today, CSU does not use the word "remedial" to describe the program or the students.

The approach is the outgrowth of a 2017 executive order by Cal State Chancellor Tim White to eliminate the remedial education programs. The directive put the 23 campuses in high gear to overhaul English and math classes, the latter of which has so far seen the most changes.

This effort is part of a systemwide plan called Graduation Initiative 2025, which seeks to raise the percentage of freshmen who earn their degree within six years. Three years ago, 59% of first-time students systemwide got their diploma within six years. The initiative aims to raise that rate to 70% by 2025.

The old remedial program had led some students to drop out and added a year or more to the time some students took to earn their degrees.

But the change was abrupt. Campuses had less than a year to create the new classes and schedule them in time for incoming students to sign up.

Some faculty said such a quick turnaround would lead to classes in which students would struggle.

"We don't see that at all," said CSU Long Beach Dean Curtis Bennett. "We see, in fact, that when we tailor the classes more to the students' needs and we tailor the classes to thinking about communication and being engaging, the students are doing just as well, or quite frankly, even better."

Asked for this story what the current and previous remedial pass rates are, Bennett cautions against putting the two percentages side by side, because the classes are so different. But he said 61% of the freshmen who needed remedial help in the fall of 2018 passed the classes in their first year to fulfill their general education math requirement. The rate for the last freshman class enrolled in the old remedial education classes, he said, was 28%.

At Cal State Northridge, math professor Stevenson said pass rates so far have been encouraging, but it's too early to say that the results will have a domino effect and help students in their other classes and help them earn their degrees.

"The place where we're still looking to see is, how did they do down the road and how did those ... people who for sure would have been placed into developmental math classes, how are they going to fare in the longer run," Stevenson said.

Her campus, like others, uses math curricula that fold in lessons about topics like voting that are relevant to students' everyday lives. The hope is that as students improve their quantitative reasoning, their critical thinking and problem-solving skills will carry over to other academic subjects.

Christina Sover (right) teaches a freshman math class at California State University, Long Beach. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

This emphasis on quantitative reasoning is the next major battlefront in Cal State's effort to increase the number of students who enter the university college-ready and go on to earn a degree.

The chancellor's office is asking the system's trustees to approve a proposal that would require applicants to the university to take an additional quantitative reasoning class in high school. The class could be an advanced math class, in addition to the three math classes the CSU already requires for application, or a related class like economics or computer science.

Some CSU trustees say they oppose the proposal until more is known about its impact on high schools.

As for the new math classes, Cal State Long Beach sophomore Martinet says that taking last year's course had a positive ripple effect.

"I feel like I'm more confident in my abilities in working in my other classes also," she said.

And she said she wants to graduate in four years.

"I am a criminal justice major, and I am not 100% sure what I would like to do with that yet. But maybe law, maybe federal government," she said, and her dream job is to work for the FBI.