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The Math Dilemma: Calculating a Solution

The numbers are in and they need improvement. According to results from 2013’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly three out of four students graduating high school in Illinois are not prepared for college-level mathematics. And this is by no means a local problem—or a new one. At 27 percent, Illinois is just one percentage point above the national average for college-level math readiness, and there has been no notable change in either score since the last assessment in 2009. In immediate practical terms, this means the majority of high school graduates entering college must take non-credit remedial courses in mathematics, resulting in a costly and sometimes prohibitive obstacle on the path to a degree. 

“This is a problem with considerable national and economic implications,” said Erin Birt, Chairman, COD Board of Trustees. “Not only is there the issue of college readiness, U.S. students are performing far below most other developed nations. Math is at the very foundation of the STEM cluster, and in a knowledge-based, global economy with a substantial focus on quickly emerging technology, it’s clear that the U.S. can’t afford to fall behind.”

In response to this national dilemma, College of DuPage has been working with local high schools to better prepare students for success in their college math courses and ultimately their careers. The Math Curriculum Alignment Committee is comprised of District 502 high school superintendents, principals, math department heads, math instructors, the College of DuPage Associate Dean of Mathematics, members of the college math faculty and Learning Support Services staff.

One component the committee has initiated involves area high school juniors visiting COD’s campus to take the ACT Compass placement test, an adaptive computerized test used by colleges nationwide to evaluate students’ skills in math. The results help identify students who need additional assistance with math. The same group of students then returns during the spring of their senior year to retake the test after completing a large part of their fourth year math coursework. In addition to providing feedback, the committee hopes this testing will motivate the high school students to take four years of math, one year beyond the Illinois state requirement.

Since the project began in 2011, nearly 1,500 high school students have participated from eight area high schools. This has resulted in a substantial amount of data that the committee is currently analyzing for details about the effectiveness and long-term benefits of the process. 

“We’re doing a lot of data-mining and analysis,” said Tom Schrader, COD Associate Dean of Math and Physical Sciences. “One practical outcome we are looking for in this testing process is to motivate students to take four years of math in high school.”

In an effort to assist students to make a seamless transition to college math, some high schools have aligned with the College of DuPage’s remedial math courses, offering Math 0481 and 0482 taught by their teachers using the College’s curriculum and standards.  A significant portion of the committee’s work has been to increase communication and understanding across the border between secondary and post-secondary education. 

“As a committee, we have come to understand the work of the high schools in aligning our courses to the Illinois State Common Core Standards as well as our preparations for the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments,” said Dan Krause, Principal of Willowbrook High School. “In addition, we have learned more about the COMPASS exams and the college placement process.”

Schrader said that the work the committee members are doing will not change things overnight. Rather, they are in it for the long haul. He said that while the partnership is currently focused on helping high school students’ transition to college, he hopes the scope of the initiatives will eventually make its way to the earliest levels of the education system. 

“This committee came about because this national problem is bigger than COD—we can’t solve it on our own,” said Schrader. “We hope to create best practices that can be replicated throughout the district for all students, not just those that attend COD. Our ultimate goal is to deal with the problem at a fundamental systemic level and involve all levels from kindergarten on up.”

For more information about the state of math education in the U.S. and national efforts to boost math literacy, please visit the U.S. Department of Education.


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