April 15, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, says he knew something was wrong when he scored zero on the entrance exam that incoming Baltimore City Community College students must pass before taking any college-credit math courses.

Embry, a graduate of Harvard Law School, then gave the intermediate algebra test to his daughter, who majored in economics at Yale. Out of 34 questions, she answered six correctly.

For Embry, this only confirmed the findings of a new Abell study: If the state wants to raise the abysmally low graduation rate at BCCC, it has to revise unrealistically high state math standards, which the report says have become a huge roadblock for BCCC students.

The standards "are holding up students from going through community college," Embry said. "It's unbelievable any of these [students] ever pass at all."

BCCC has long struggled with students' high dropout rate and remediation needs. Of the 1,350 first-time students who entered BCCC in the fall of 1997, 12 had graduated four years later; almost all of its students need remediation in math or English.

What is new about the report is its focus on state math standards as a root of the problem. The report has added fuel to a debate among state education officials about math requirements, with one leading arbiter of state math standards saying it might be time to consider a different bar for some students.

As it stands, the state higher education commission requires students at Maryland's public colleges and universities -- two-year and four-year -- to take one "college-level" math course, involving skills beyond intermediate algebra, to graduate.

The problem is, many students arrive at college unprepared for such a course. At community colleges statewide, 43 percent of students require remedial math help, and even four-year colleges like the University of Maryland, College Park offer catch-up math courses for freshmen.

At BCCC, 95 percent of entering students last year needed remedial math, and most were placed in the lower two of the three levels, arithmetic and introductory algebra. In all, BCCC had 113 sections of remedial math last fall -- four times the number of for-credit math classes.

The consequences of this are clear, the Abell report found. Many of BCCC's 6,300 credit-seeking students must take all three levels of remedial math classes, ending with intermediate algebra, before they can even qualify for the required college-credit course. For many, that proves too costly, time-consuming and frustrating, and they drop out.

The same thing might be happening, to a lesser degree, at other state community colleges. Of the students entering Maryland's two-year colleges in 1996, about 8 percent graduated four years later, while 24 percent transferred to four-year colleges with or without degrees.

This doesn't make any sense, the report argues, considering that the state requires only geometry and introductory algebra in high school -- resulting in a "cruel day of reckoning" when students arrive at BCCC expected to know intermediate algebra. Questions on the intermediate algebra entrance test include: "Find the equation of the circle at (-4,-4) and radius of 3" and "In how many different ways can three spades be drawn from a standard deck of cards?"

Embry notes the SAT does not test intermediate algebra, and many top private colleges no longer require math courses for graduation.

Meanwhile, the report concludes, the state math requirements are denying students a BCCC degree that could benefit both them and the city: A separate study has found that recipients of BCCC degrees or certificates, on average, were able to double their salaries eight years after graduation.

BCCC officials agree with the report's conclusion. "For many of our students, the math requirement shuts a door and prevents them from pursuing a better life for themselves and their family," said Barbara L. Hopkins, the vice president for external affairs.

BCCC has formed a task force to address the Abell findings and will meet with the city public school system, where most BCCC students come from, to discuss how high schools could better prepare graduates for BCCC math courses.

Among the Abell suggestions is that BCCC and the state reconsider requiring college-level math for all community college degrees, or replace intermediate algebra with other math courses such as statistics for students in some majors.

"Such a move should not be seen as an attempt to cheapen the value of a BCCC education," the report says. "No one would argue that community college graduates should be mathematically illiterate. Yet having a solid knowledge of algebra and geometry ... would suffice in a vast number of careers."

UMCP math Professor Denny Gulick, the chairman of a group of math faculty that advises on state standards, said recently that the Abell proposals are worth considering. It may be possible, he said, to create separate standards for community college students who are planning to head straight into the work force -- as are most BCCC students.

But the state should not lower the standards for community college graduates planning to transfer to four-year colleges, he said, because those students are expected to make a seamless transition to junior-year courses.

"I have great sympathy for the community colleges, and I want to be compassionate, but I also want to do what's best," he said. "I'm hell-bent that we don't water down what we think ought to be learned by a student in college."