Q: Three English majors pick 70 bushels of apples. If Tyler picks twice as many as Taylor but only half as many as Ashley, how many college students will wish they didn’t have to pass algebra to graduate?
A: Quite a few.
In Missouri, roughly half the students who take college algebra fail it at least once, and many of them just give up and drop out, math professors say.
That’s why state education officials want to nudge algebra aside to make room for other math choices that would speed time to graduation for many students.
A committee appointed by the Missouri Department of Higher Education is recommending that two- and four-year public schools that require algebra instead give students the option of taking a class in statistics or another math subject more relevant to their field.
The department doesn’t have a complete list of schools still requiring algebra, but they include some community colleges in Kansas City as well as the University of Missouri and Truman State University.
“Ultimately we are not able to tell any institution that they have to do this or that,” said Rusty Monhollon, the Missouri department’s assistant commissioner for academic affairs. “But I do think there is a great deal of support for improving the quality of math education in the state.”
The change would add Missouri to a growing list of states giving students an alternative to algebra. In Kansas, where the pass rate for college algebra in 2014 was 76 percent, all six state universities governed by the Kansas Board of Regents allow students to take other math courses to satisfy their degree requirements, a Regents spokeswoman said.
College algebra has been the general education math requirement for graduation for decades. For many students, that’s also meant sitting through remedial math, or taking algebra two or three times.
Freed from the requirement, students could graduate sooner, save money and move Missouri closer to meeting a big goal: State educators have pledged that by 2025, 60 percent of working-age Missourians will have a higher education credential.
To get there, the state will have to increase its annual production of four-year degrees and two-year certificates by about 2,600 each year for the next 10 years, said David Russell, the state’s higher education commissioner.
College algebra has been slowing things down.
At Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, the algebra pass rate mirrors the national average of about 50 percent for first-time takers.
“We all have students who come to us and say, ‘I can’t do this. I’m terrible at math,’” said MCC-Blue River math professor Bill Morgan.
Racquel Phillips, who graduated in May with an associate’s degree from Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, remembers students who had such a difficult time in her college algebra class that “they left and never came back.”
“Even to this day I know people who say, ‘I’m just one math class away from graduation. I just have to pass algebra.’”
Allowing students to take a math course they’ll use on the job would improve the pass rate at MCC-Blue River, Morgan said.
“If math could be seen as more relevant to a student’s future life, it would become less of a barrier to them,” he said. “I really think that relevance of the math is the key.”
Math experts said algebra emerged as the gateway math for college because all the math that students are taught from elementary school through high school is designed to prepare them for algebra.
“Right now we equate mathematics thinking with algebraic thinking, and mathematics is broader than that,” said Northwest Missouri State math professor Mary Shepherd, a member of the statewide committee reviewing math requirements. “Students have been told, ‘You don’t think mathematically,’ because they struggle with algebra, but algebra is just one small aspect of mathematics.”
College algebra “is for students going into the STEM fields or who plan to take calculus,” said Phoebe McLaughlin, a professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. “We want students to have the math course that’s most appropriate for them. I would not call that ‘dumbed down.’ I call it more applicable to their major.”
About a decade ago, a group of mathematicians modified the traditional college math in an attempt to make it more relevant to more students. The modified algebra had a higher pass rate than the traditional college algebra, said Michael Pearson, who taught college math for 35 years and is director of the Mathematical Association of America.
“But did it take off like wild fire? I would have to say, ‘No, it did not,’” Pearson said. Since then, he said, all kinds of approaches have been aimed at eliminating the algebra barrier.
Colleges across the country are engaged in various efforts to redesign mathematics pathways, according to the Charles A. Dana Center in Austin, Texas, which has worked with schools to develop what they call “mathways” to graduation that allow more student success.
In the fall of 2012, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which offers math options to algebra, began using new technology to improve teaching and learning. In spring 2015, the school’s algebra pass rate was nearly 87 percent.
Many state universities in Missouri have added statistics and quantitative reasoning as options to their general education requirements.
“I think that’s a good idea as long as they keep the same rigor,” said Phillips, who now works in the administration office at MCC-Penn Valley. “I had to change my study skills to get through algebra. But I do think that class really helped me develop my critical thinking skills.”
MU has been requiring students to pass college algebra or a higher level math course for nearly three decades, said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies. But with the state recommendations coming down this month, that may change by fall 2016.
MU faculty members expect this fall to discuss giving students other math choices.
“We just haven’t started those conversations yet,” Spain said. But he expects MU “will work diligently to address the state’s new recommendations.”
As for Tyler, the English major with the apples? He picked 20 bushels.