‘Math misalignment’ shuts many out of STEM careers

Students entering community college with the goal of a STEM career often face a huge obstacle when they place into developmental math, a new study concludes.

STEM careers paid a median salary of $84,800 in 2018, compared to $37,020 in all non-STEM fields, thus offering a huge opportunity for many low-income and students of color in community colleges, according to the report by Wheelhouse: The Center for Community Leadership and Research at the University of California, Davis.

Between 2010 and 2016, approximately 65 percent of first-time California community college enrollees started their college trajectory in developmental math courses for which they made no progress toward a degree or transfer. That effectively shuts many students out of STEM careers, as strong math skills are needed for just about all STEM-related degrees, the report says.

Students who have successfully completed high school math requirements should not need remediation in math in community college, it continues.

“That so many did is a strong indication of misalignment between high school and community college expectations,” the report says.

Incorrect placements

Even students who did well in high school math ended up in non-credit developmental math in a community college. Wheelhouse found the majority of STEM-aspiring students who earned a 3.4 grade-point average (GPA) in high school (or earned a 2.6 GPA but took calculus) were placed below transfer-level math in college.

Students who were placed directly into transfer-level math in community college completed seven to 14 more transferable STEM units than those placed in lower-level math courses.

In 2018, California passed a law requiring community colleges to use high school performance criteria instead of placement tests to assess student’s ability to handle college-level math. The Wheelhouse report doesn’t directly address the impact of that law (AB 705), but instead focuses on the negative impacts of placing high-achieving students into non-credit math courses. That makes it relevant to community colleges across the nation that are re-examining how students are placed into developmental or gateway college math courses and the types of supports provided to students who actually need remediation.

Losing momentum

The report looks at data on California high school graduates who enrolled in a community college between 2009 and 2014 within three years. About half of the students who aspired to a STEM career and had taken algebra 2 in high school were placed in pre-algebra in college. Just over half of the students who took calculus in high school were placed directly into transfer-level math.

Only 25 percent of students with a high school GPA greater or equal to 3.0 were placed into transfer-level math.

Even among students who were subject to the multiple measures of placement criteria – attaining a GPA of at least 3.4 and taking calculus in high school – only 40 were placed in transfer-level math. An additional 32 percent were placed into intermediate math (equivalent to algebra 2). More than a quarter of students who met those criteria were placed into elementary algebra, pre-algebra or arithmetic.

Students placed in transfer-level math completed about seven more transferable STEM units (about two courses) compared to students placed into intermediate algebra, almost 12 more units than those placed into elementary algebra, and 13.6 more units than those placed into pre-algebra or a more basic math course.

That relationship held true even after controlling for student background and academic achievement in high school, including grades and standardized test scores, the report says.

“Inter-sector misalignment is critical,” the report notes, not only because math is so important for all STEM disciplines, but because students placed in low-level math courses may lose interest in STEM and lose momentum in attaining a STEM degree.

The report offers several recommendations for community colleges to reduce misalignment:

  • Establish a systematic data-sharing agreement with high schools.
  • Encourage faculty to collaborate with high school teachers to create more rigorous math courses.
  • Expand dual-enrollment partnerships with high schools.

If math misalignment were reduced, more STEM-aspiring students would likely complete more transferable credit-bearing STEM courses in community college, thus increasing their likelihood of attaining a STEM degree and a high-paying job in the field, the report concludes.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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