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Mass. state colleges are trying to solve a math problem

Northern Essex Community College Professor Habib M. Maagoul with freshman student Riya Patel in his pre-calculus class. The college is working to overhaul its math curriculum. Jonathan Wiggs\Globe Staff

Carrie Hale had spent years in low-paying jobs — cleaning houses and bagging groceries — followed by bouts of unemployment, before finally deciding to enroll in community college at age 30.

That leap was even harder than she imagined. She bombed the standardized test for math placement, which meant she had to spend three long semesters and more than $2,000 in financial aid taking remedial classes that didn’t even count toward her degree. The result: Graduating with a two-year’s associate’s degree will take her about four full years.

“There is a lot of stigma attached,” said Hale, who is attending Greenfield Community College. “I’m in my 30s; being in a developmental math class was a trip. I had moments when I was, ‘How is this my life?’ ”


To help students like Hale, Massachusetts is embarking on its most ambitious effort yet to shake up how community colleges and four-year state universities teach math by relying less on standardized tests, trying to shorten time spent in remedial classes, and focusing more on skills students will actually use in their majors and in real life.

But as officials try to get more students to graduate on time and find jobs, the question remains: Will this new direction properly prepare students who may have deep gaps in their math skills?

Consider this: For every 100 community college students who must take a review math course before they can move on to classes that count toward their degree, only 60 complete it. And of those, only 21 go on to finish within two years a math course that provides them credit toward a degree, according to 2012 data. These remedial math classes have earned comparisons to quicksand, particularly for black and Latino students, who can get trapped in them and never come out with a degree.


“We have to do better,” said Carlos Santiago, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education.

Massachusetts, he said, needs to ensure there is a pipeline of educated students ready for jobs in the state’s current economy.

Samuel Martinez attended in his pre-calculus class taught by Professor Habib M. Maagoul.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

That’s especially true, given that the job options for Massachusetts residents without a bachelor’s degree have narrowed significantly, with nearly two out of three good jobs in the state — those with an annual salary of at least $55,000 — requiring a college education, according to a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

In fact, Massachusetts has the second-lowest share of good jobs for people without a bachelor’s degree in the country, surpassed only by the District of Columbia.

As a result, state colleges and universities are trying a variety of solutions to address the math dilemma and support students, many of whom, they acknowledge, may hate math or were ill-prepared after high school for college-level math.

Northern Essex Community College is giving students a $100 incentive if they complete their first math class within their first semester’s worth of college credits. Starting last year, state universities required incoming students to have completed four years of high school math, so they would be better equipped for college courses. Several state universities and community colleges have revamped their math courses, focusing more on statistics and everyday equations. And some, such as Framingham State University, are even ditching remedial math classes altogether, blaming them for costing students money without leading to all-important graduation credits. Instead, students take review courses at the same time as college-level classes, instead of beforehand.


Earlier this month, Massachusetts launched a new effort to get all public higher-education institutions to develop math classes more aligned with the majors their students are pursuing, offering more pathways to earn math credit and graduate. So, for example, students planning to become elementary school teachers may need basic algebra, geometry, and statistics, but they won’t necessarily have to study traditional pre-calculus.

On a recent afternoon at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, students majoring in science and engineering reviewed a semester’s worth of pre-calculus formulas, going up to the whiteboard and demonstrating that they knew how to solve the problems that will help them calculate bridge elevations and the cost of materials such as electrical wire, and get them ready for the more advanced calculus they will have to do next semester.

Next fall, Northern Essex is hoping to have math programs similarly geared for business majors and elementary-teaching candidates, offering different pathways to fulfilling the college’s math requirements.

The community college has also made other changes. Instead of just using a standardized test called Accuplacer that state educators worry pushes too many students into remedial math classes, Northern Essex is also allowing students who had at least a 2.7 grade-point average in high school to take college-level math classes. If students need more help with college-level work, they are encouraged to take a three-hour developmental class at the same time to address skill gaps.


This semester, the college has 35 students taking the college-level and developmental math classes together, but will be expanding the number of classes next year. That will probably mean fewer students taking only remedial math, college officials said.

Educators hope that allowing students to take college-level math at the same time as remedial classes will keep them motivated, said Habib Maagoul, chairman of the Northern Essex math department.

But he acknowledges that getting students to commit to an additional two or three hours of math class a week can be challenging.

“Life hits them from every corner, and math is another hit,” Maagoul said.

Massachusetts is among several states nationwide overhauling their math programs and developing courses that are more applicable to a student’s major, with remedial work that can be completed in a semester.

The “pathways” model has shown some early success, said Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, a senior associate with MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy organization based in New York, who is studying its impact on college success.

Students at four Texas community colleges who took the revamped remedial math classes were 11 percentage points more likely to pass the class than those in a traditional algebra pathway.

Whether the class prepares them for other math they have to take and is rigorous enough to ensure they succeed and graduate with a degree on time is still being studied, Zachry Rutschow said.

“We want to look at not just, Are they passing?” she said. “Are they functioning well? Are they taking a biology class and doing OK? It’s going to take a little while to find out.”


What is clear based on graduation rates is that the way community colleges and state institutions have taught math thus far isn’t working, she said.

Still, not all community college math instructors or students are convinced of the need for dramatic change.

“For people who need remediation, it can take years to accomplish their dreams,” said Norman Beebe, a math instructor at Greenfield Community College. “We are supportive of speeding up that timeline for remediation, but it’s not appropriate for all students. It would be closing the door to some students.”

At Greenfield, Carrie Hale’s situation illustrates the dilemma facing higher-education officials. She was frustrated that she had to spend so much time in basic math, but it ultimately helped her gain the confidence to pursue an engineering degree. She is even tutoring other remedial students.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt there’s hope for me,” said Hale, who lives in Northampton. “I never considered myself a smart person. But I have never been more excited about anything I’ve done in my life.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.