December 04, 1990|By Carl T. Rowan

WASHINGTON — Washington.

A REPORT PREPARED for the College Board indicates that math has an ''almost magical'' link to getting into college and getting a degree -- especially for minority students. Or, to state it as a formula: geometry plus algebra equals success in college.

One of the most disturbing trends in education is the relative decline of minority students going on to college. Although blacks and Hispanics made up an increasing proportion of the traditional college-age population, their share of students on campuses dropped.

The new study shows a startling change in the gap between whites and minorities when both groups have taken a year of algebra and geometry in high school. Geometry usually is offered in ninth or tenth grade and is preceded by algebra. A government survey tracked about 16,000 high school graduates through the 1980s. Within four years of graduation, 58 percent of the white students had entered college, 47 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Hispanics.

But a startling change occurred when they looked at those who had taken at least two years of basic math. The college attendance rates among these students were 83 percent for whites, 82 percent for Hispanics and 80 percent for blacks. The study also found that college graduation rates rose sharply for all groups of students who had taken algebra and geometry and that the differences between whites and minorities narrowed.

The president of the College Board, Donald M. Stewart, called math ''the gatekeeper for success in college'' and recommended ''serious consideration of a national policy to ensure that all students take algebra and geometry.''

The study also examined the effect of laboratory sciences and foreign languages on college enrollment and completion, but found them less important. ''I think we're looking at something that is more basic than those other courses,'' said Sol H. Pelavin, one of the authors of the report. ''The logical-thinking skills taught in algebra and geometry are some of the basic skills needed in college.''

A much smaller percentage of minority students than whites takes these math courses. In the high school classes of 1982, which were used in the study, 40 percent of whites took geometry, compared with 19 percent of blacks and 17 percent of Hispanics.

In recent years, some states have increased the number of math credits needed for high school graduation. But many students get around this requirement by taking courses in general or consumer math.

Getting more students to take basic math courses could pay additional dividends by giving minorities a better shot at getting into some fields they have avoided.

From a high of 1,116 in 1977, the number of blacks receiving

doctorates has fallen and leveled off at just over 800. Nearly half of these Ph.D's are in education. Since 1977, only 100 to 133 blacks a year received Ph.D's in natural sciences and engineering -- less than 2 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in those fields.

Walter Massey, a black physicist who is a vice president of the University of Chicago, regards this as a ''cultural catastrophe.'' He worries that too few young people in general are choosing careers in science and that blacks are missing out on a rewarding career: ''If we are to replace the scientists who will be retiring over the next few years, we cannot depend solely on the traditional sources of supply.''

Dr. Massey regards math as the ''gateway to science.'' Minority students ought to strive to walk proudly through the math gate.