For community-college students, math can be a dream-killer.
They may be required to repeat classes they don’t need. Or they may need a different approach to the subject.
Statewide, about 40% of all first-time students who enrolled in a community-college math class last year were deemed not ready for college-level math, and had to first take classes that reviewed high-school math subjects. Those remedial classes cost time and money — they burn up the finite pot of financial aid and extend the time it takes to finish a degree.
And across the state, only 9% who started with remedial math had earned a college-level math credit by the end of a year. “The thing that keeps most people from graduating from college is that they can’t pass math,” said Stephanie Delaney, dean for academic programs at South Seattle College.
But a new study shows that a different approach to math, using statistics, is helping more community-college students earn their math credit. And last summer, Washington’s four-year public schools agreed they would count the class — called Statway — as a math credit for transfer students.
It’s part of a state and national trend that includes redesigning math courses to make them more relevant to students, and limiting the numbers of students required to take remedial math in the first place.
Seattle Central math teacher Paul Verschueren says many students who place into remedial math are not planning careers in science, technology, engineering or math, a constellation of fields known as STEM. They need only some of the college-level math skills they’re required to earn — either to graduate, or to transfer to a four-year school — for their chosen careers.
But community colleges have had “a rigid expectation of every individual doing the same thing, and ignored the miserable success rates” in math, Verschueren said. Those students who failed could have been excellent in their chosen field, but hit a wall in college.
“And all because they can’t factor a trinomial,” Verschueren said.
Eight years ago, Seattle Central began trying to solve this dilemma by piloting Statway, a very different kind of math class — one that uses easily-accessible statistics melded with real-world examples as an alternative to the traditional algebra/precalculus sequence. For example, Verschueren often has his students use what they’ve learned in Statway to dissect opinion polls and figure out if the polls are statistically valid.
Seattle Central instructors have also modified it to include some algebra concepts. Students who pass the class, which runs for three quarters, earn college-level math credit.
Last year at Seattle Central, 66% of students who started Statway passed all three terms of the course and earned a college math credit in a year, according to the Carnegie report. Overall, since its start in 2011, about 75% of students who have started Statway have been successful in the courses.
The program has been taught to 1,523 students since it started in fall 2011, and has prompted Seattle Central to develop a second math pathway for nonSTEM majors using quantitative reasoning. Like Statway, it emphasizes real-world examples to teach math. Both math courses are “much more of a respectful approach,” Verschueren said, because they acknowledge that community-college students are usually older (the average age of a Seattle Central student is 27), and that they’ve gone back to school to earn a specific degree or skill.
“Statway is providing hope for students who feared and avoided math,” said Wendy Rockhill, dean of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Business (STEM-B) at Seattle Central.
The course has expanded to South Seattle College, where last year about 50 students took Statway. It’s grown slowly because it was unclear whether the University of Washington would accept the three-quarter course sequence as a math credit for transfer students, Delaney said.
The uncertainty about transfer credits made the college’s advisers reluctant to recommend Statway, Delaney said. But last year, the course got the blessing from the state’s five public universities and one public college. It’s now accepted as a college math credit statewide.
That acceptance comes with some caveats: Students must come directly from a Washington community college, and must have earned 40 or more transferable credits. The Statway alternative math credit is intended for students majoring in the arts, humanities or social sciences, as long as their chosen field does not have a math-course requirement.
Starting next year, South Seattle College is using a new advising program for students called Guided Pathways, and it’s likely to boost the number of students in Statway. Guided Pathways is an explicit outline of the courses that students must complete to get a job in a specific field, and it will place all students in remedial math into Statway.
Delaney said she likes the fact that Statway “acknowledges that math is hard, and it acknowledges the beauty of the growth mindset — that your mind is a muscle, and if you work it it will grow.”
Statewide, the math trend is going in the right direction — not only because of programs like Statway but also because more colleges are recognizing that not all students need remediation, said Bill Moore, director of K-12 partnerships for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
Six years ago, nearly 60% of community-college students who signed up for math were placed into remedial classes. Today, it’s 40%.
And of those who enrolled in any kind of math, more than a quarter finished a college-level math credit by the end of their first year in 2017-18 — a slight increase over six years.
At least 27 higher-education institutions in nine states use Statway. According to a report by Carnegie, only about 15% of students nationally complete the traditional math sequence by the end of two years, while 49% of Statway students complete the course at the end of a year.
“I’m excited that students get empowered to be able to do math in ways they never thought they could,” Delaney said.
Due to a math error in the Carnegie report, an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that only 43% of Statway students at Seattle Central completed a college-level math credit in 2017-18. In fact, 66% of those students completed a credit in a year.