The conventional algebra-intensive math curriculum commonly dictates students’ options for entering and completing college, including their ability to transfer from two-year to four-year institutions. The assumption that higher-level algebra is necessary for college success has led some equity advocates to promote algebra for all students. Nearly half of states require two years of algebra for high school graduation, and the Common Core State Standards being implemented in the majority of states have a similar emphasis.
While the intent has been to raise achievement, the hidden underbelly of high algebra expectations has been swelling enrollment in college developmental (also known as remedial) math over the last few decades, especially at community colleges.
After nearly 10 years of investment in improving remedial math success, the initiatives with perhaps the most promise are also the most controversial. Alternative developmental math sequences emphasizing statistics and quantitative reasoning have been developed for students interested in non-algebra-intensive fields. Early results at community colleges have been extraordinary, opening up opportunities for students to succeed in college. But the sequences defy long-held beliefs, especially within math departments, about the importance of algebra for all students.
Universities’ wariness about the initiatives has created a dilemma for students seeking to transfer to universities, leaving colleges hesitant to make alternatives available. The issue is particularly salient in California, given the state’s history of experiments with math reforms and its role as the incubator of several alternative math curricula.