Student issues with math mutiply, but solutions abound

By Linda Conner Lambeck, STAFF WRITER, CT Post. 2/7/2010

Janine Alleyne, 18, a freshman at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, had no patience for math. She'd get stuck on a problem while she was a student at Bassick High School , grow aggravated and give up.

Joycelyn Thomas let 31 years lapse between high school and college. She could handle math at one time. Now, she finds it confusing.

Leonard Alford, 21, a Charlotte, N.C., native, said circumstances were such that math was a low priority in high school.

"I had other things on my mind. I don't think I really cared if I knew it. To tell you the truth I'm not sure how I graduated," he said.

But he did, and along with Alleyne, Thomas and hundreds of other HCC students, has been forced to make up lost ground. Without a solid grounding in mathematics, they won't earn a college degree. The odds are stacked against them.

Recent studies show 37 percent of students who start their college careers taking non-credit developmental courses in math will graduate. That compares to 65 percent who come to college ready for college-level math.

This semester at Housatonic, there are 59 sections of developmental math, meaning non-credit courses designed to prepare students for college-level math.

In addition to 51 traditional developmental math classes, there are eight sections of a "Open Entry/Open Exit" course offered in both day and evening sessions. Started in the spring of 2007 at Housatonic, the open entry courses are self-paced. Students who don't finish in a single semester can take the course again, starting where they left off and not from the beginning. Students who finish quickly can complete two developmental courses in a single semester.

So far the chance of success remains higher in traditional classes -- 55 percent versus 51 percent for open ended, but Housatonic officials say it took them awhile to get the self-paced courses "right."

"The bigger news to me is how it's affected overall completion rates and retention rates," said Jane Wampler, director of developmental math at Housatonic.
"We realized we had to do something. It was a flashing red light regarding math," said Housatonic President Anita Glineicki  about the growing need to offer remedial math courses.

Housatonic officials started investigating why so many students not only had to take remedial courses, but so often failed them. They got conflicting answers. Some students complained math was taught too slowly. Others said it was taught too quickly.

"We learned no one comes into our developmental courses a blank slate," said Glineicki.

As time goes on, the self-paced class is getting better and is more successful, she added.

Self-paced courses are not the only thing Housatonic is trying to bridge the math-readiness gap. The two-year college also invites Bridgeport high school students to campus to help prepare them for college math, and goes to a dozen other high schools in the region to give them a taste of what is in store for them.

Housatonic also is not alone in the large number of its students who need math help. About half of all community college students in the state and about one-quarter of the students in the state university system come to college ill-prepared to tackle college level English and math, according to state officials. But math is more often the culprit.

There are roughly 55,000 students enrolled in the system this semester and 14,000 in at least one remedial course.

Marc Herzog, chancellor of the state's community college system, said the growing need for developmental courses at the system's 12 colleges is in direct proportion to an overall growth in enrollment and not some new aversion to elementary and high school math.

Others aren't so sure. While math scores in Connecticut and across the nation rose on the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the nation lags behind schools in places like Hong Kong and Singapore on the latest International Mathematics Report. Theories as to why abound.

Jane Wampler, director of the developmental math course at HCC, believes part of the problem may have its root in elementary schools with classroom teachers who don't quite know how to teach math and who may even have an aversion to the subject themselves. If teacher colleges spent more time teaching elementary education majors how to teach math, students would get off to a better start, she said.

Adam Goldberg, an assistant professor of elementary education at Southern Connecticut State University, the largest teacher college in the state, said it's true that elementary teachers are not math specialists and math is just one subject they have to worry about. More needs to be done, he said, to get those teachers faced on higher order thinking skills and linking fun math games and manipulatives used in class to the math skills they want students to learn.

"We're working on it," he said. "We're getting better at it. There is still a little bit of a disconnect."

At Southern, future teachers take a minimum of two courses on elementary mathematics content. Undergraduates take another course on teaching math and science. Graduate students also take a mathematics methods course.

Thomas Minotti, a developmental math professor at the University of Bridgeport , said one of his theories is that calculators are introduced too soon, leaving students unable to master fundamental skills like multiplication and division.

"For some its just a matter of unraveling the attitude that `I can't do math.' If they give me a chance to help, in most cases, I feel I can meet the students halfway," said Minotti, who taught 38 years in the Bridgeport school system before retiring in 2000.

Minotti has also noticed that at UB, domestic students who are deficient in math see it as something they have to get through rather than absorb. There sometimes seems a lack of concern for the material. International students who take developmental math, he added, tend to have a decent background in math. Their problem is the English language.

Students who take one of Wampler's open-ended math courses at HCC say there is no one reason for their inability.

"I don't hate it, I just don't get it," said Brittany Miller, a Housatonic freshman who graduated from Central High School in Bridgeport without a solid grounding in math. "They didn't teach me and I didn't push them to teach me," she said.

Andre Pettway, who came to Housatonic after a semester spent at a Florida university  before transferring, said he did poorly on Housatonic's math entrance exam last year because he "knew" he wasn't going there and didn't take it seriously. It took just one test for him to pass out of 075, a pre-algebra remedial course, and pass through to 095, which is beginning algebra.

Pettway, a Bassick grad, said there were some teachers at his alma mater who taught math well.

"I wasn't lucky enough to get them," he said. By the fall, he hopes to be ready to take a college-level math course.

Wampler said she admires students brave enough to tackle a subject that they have had difficulty with in the past. It's very rare, she said, that a student who puts his or her mind to it, can't master the subject matter. She had one student who spent three semesters in pre-alegbra and now is in beginning algebra a third time.

"She'll finish and she is totally fine with that. She knows that's her learning style," said Wampler.

While there are various self-paced math courses available on the Internet, Housatonic uses one called Plato because it has a lecture component, delivered over headphones, giving students a more traditional course experience. There is also a professor and tutor in each class of 25 students to answer student questions. Students are guided through a series of concepts, such as whole numbers, decimals and fractions. There are assignments they can complete in class or at home. Tests are taken in class. Students who score 80 or better, move on to the next concept.

Alford, a psychology major, declares the course pretty easy. "If I don't get something I can go back. The teacher is here to help just in case the computer is not giving you the information you need," he said.

Jasmine White, 21, a nursing student at Housatonic, has moved on to beginning algebra. On her computer screen was a problem that involved Xs and Ys and numbers to the second power.

Miriam Kluger, an analyst in the department of research for the Connecticut General Assembly, has examined college remediation programs as part of an effort to figure out how state colleges and universities can produce graduates more efficiently and cost effectively. Considering how many students community colleges attract, they should be producing more graduates than they are.

Remedial courses, which like all state college programs are subsidized by the state, cost taxpayers $125 million annually, Kluger said. At the community college level, each remedial course also costs the student $354, either out of their own pockets or their limited financial aid awards.

Since students are placed into remedial coursework by taking a exam called the Accuplacer, Kluger suggested it might not be a bad idea to let high school juniors take that test so they know how far off they are from being college-ready.

In other states where that is done, students end up taking more math in high school and working harder. It could cut down on the number of students who get good grades in high school, think they are doing well, but then are assigned to a remedial course in college, she said.