The war on standards, college math edition

I’m pretty sure I’ve told the story on Power Line of how, years ago, a major university dumbed down its graduate program in public policy, but I don’t think I’ve told it recently. The university in question had always required students in the program to take and pass a course in econometrics. The course was taught by a good friend of mine (a liberal).

The program used racial preferences to boost the number of African-American students, which was fine with my friend. However, many of the students admitted thanks to the preferences struggled with his econometrics course which, inherently, was math intensive.

The university asked him to make the course easier. My friend was willing to make it a little easier.

A little easier didn’t work. Some beneficiaries of the preferences still couldn’t pass the course and thus couldn’t meet the graduation requirements.

Finally, the university dropped econometrics as a requirement. My friend resigned and went back to the full time teaching of undergrads who wanted to take his courses.

Math requirements can also be stumbling blocks for undergrads who receive preferential admission or who, for other reasons, are poorly prepared for college. Shannon Watkins of the Martin Center reports that in the University of North Carolina system, 26 percent of students earned a “D,” “F,” or “W” (a withdrawal) in mathematics and statistics courses between fall 2015 and spring 2018.

In response, predictably, North Carolina university leaders have decided to create alternate pathways for students who find gateway and entry-level math courses, like college algebra, too difficult:

To get more students through entry-level math classes, in early 2018, the UNC system established the UNC System Math Pathways Task Force, a system-wide initiative to change general education math requirements to make them more “applicable and equitable.”

Guess what:

[L]ike so many of the initiatives the academic staff in the system office push forward, the Math Pathways task force’s recommendations are a de facto lowering of standards.

Of course, UNC’s academic staff don’t see the proposed changes as a lowering of standards. They argue that classes like college algebra simply don’t “align” with many students’ career goals. Why, for example, should drama or history students have to grapple with something as “irrelevant” as algebra?

Math didn’t “align with my career goals,” when I was a student. Yet, the probability and statistics courses I took ended up being the undergrad classes most helpful to me as a lawyer. And the “A” I earned with difficulty in the calculus course I took as a freshman gave my confidence a big boost. It also made me feel better educated, as old-fashioned as that might sound.

What will the UNC system do to aid students who can’t “do the math” presently on offer, or think they can’t? According to Watkins:

[All constituent institutions are free to create their own quantitative literacy courses, basing them on the “needs” of their student population and on what each institution “values.” “As a result, courses that focus on quantitative literacy may vary in their learning objectives and topics covered,” the [UNC] report states.

The implications are clear. Students who need easy math courses to graduate, or think they do, will be given easy math courses. If that doesn’t work, the courses will be made easier still. If that doesn’t work, don’t be surprised if the math requirement disappears, as it did years ago in the public policy program of that major university.

I agree with George Leef, also of the Martin Center:

System administrators want more “student success” and that is to be obtained by getting rid of “irrelevant” stuff, such as algebra. Those administrators don’t entertain the idea that some of the students they admit just aren’t ready for college or serious enough about learning to do what it takes to master the material. Most high schools have lowered their standards to keep students content, and when those kids get into college, they expect it to be more of the same — fun and not too difficult.

I would add only that, in my view, the desire of colleges to prefer students based on race plays a major role in the unwillingness to entertain the idea that some students aren’t ready for college, and in the lowering of standards described above.

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