'Adding it Up' Part 4: The Real Test for Community Colleges

For community college students, math is often the greatest academic barrier to success. More than half the students at many campuses are required to take remedial math because they failed an assessment test. To see why so many students struggle, WNYC's Beth Fertig has been profiling a remedial algebra class at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. In this final report of our series "Adding it Up," she looks at what it takes to succeed, and how colleges are responding to students who don't think math is relevant.

When Damarys Angulo was assigned to remedial algebra in September because she failed her math assessment, the 38-year-old Cuban immigrant was nervous. But this week, she was electrified after passing the test.

"Oh my God, I can't believe it! 70?!," she exclaimed. "Oh my Goooood!"

Angulo had scored well above the cutoff on the assessment known as COMPASS. Students in remedial algebra have to pass both the course and COMPASS in order to move on to regular college level math -- which is required for most majors. It was a big challenge for Angulo and for Victor Lopez, because they didn't feel confident about math and they both have jobs.

"After work I used to go home and spend like five hours studying, go to sleep at like 2, 3 o'clock in the morning, wake up at 6 again to come over here. I guess all that hard work actually paid off, Lopez said.

Lopez and Angulo were among the ten students in their class who passed the COMPASS exam. Three students failed, including Elizabeth Rodriguez.

Click here for more on COMPASS, including a sample test.

"I didn't pass for five points," Rodriguez explained.

Rodriguez looked shaken. This was her third time taking the class. She said she's been passing other classes, including accounting. She told her professor that algebra feels different.

"It's a personal block. An emotional thing with the math that I have to let it go," she tells Perez.


"Like really, I really do think so. At this point I can't say I wasn't prepared cause I was. I can't say I didn't study cause I did. So it's just, like, I think it's me."

Rodriguez isn't alone, though. Most of the students who enrolled in her class didn't even take the final assessment. Thirty-two registered in September but about a third of the class dropped out before the midterm. The professor, Jorge Perez, says that's typical.

"Most of the students who take the COMPASS will pass it," he says. "But it's not the numbers that I will like to see."

There are lots of reasons why most community college students don't pass remedial math. For one thing, they tend to be older than students who attend four-year colleges right out of high school. Many of them are holding down jobs. Like Elizabeth Rodriguez, they also feel intimidated by the subject because they were never great math students. And they don't see why it's relevant.

Perez confronts that attitude a lot. During a lesson last month -- on rationalizing denominators -- Damarys Angulo complained the material was over her head. She's studying to be a physical therapy assistant.

"I'm feeling like I'm studying to be an engineering and it's not," she tells her professor.

"No, you're not becoming an engineer," he says.

"Yeah," Angulo replies.

"You're not becoming an engineer. Believe me, you're not becoming an engineer. That I can tell you."

Perez then made his pitch, telling them math is a way of seeing the world.

"Because whether we like it or not the world that is surrounding us is based on numbers. Your checking account, the interest that you're going to pay on a mortgage when you buy your first house."

Click here for more on the students at LaGuardia Community College.

These arguments are picking up steam now on community college campuses around the country. There's a growing movement to make math more relevant.

"When it's meaningful, and when you really care about it, then we do find student engagement is different," says Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College. She's also on the board of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Higher education has traditionally assumed students would move from algebra to calculus. But Mellow says Carnegie is looking at equally rigorous alternatives for college classes and for the pre-college, or remedial courses.

"And they're suggesting that as important as algebra and calculus is, equally important in the modern world is statistics and probability," Mellow says. "And that if we move students in that direction, you will never again hear, 'How could I use this?' Because you can't open up a newspaper, you can't try and figure out whether you should purchase one kind of cell phone or another unless you really understand statistics and probability all the kinds of ways in which we can use mathematics."

LaGuardia is using a three-year federal grant to incorporate science, business, and public health in some of its math classes. For example, instead of solving polynomials, students may be asked to draw graphs showing carbon dioxide emissions per vehicle. LaGuardia says this approach has raised the pass rate by 20 percent in college-level math classes. But it hasn't yet made an impact on remedial math. Educators say these studies are still in the early phase at LaGuardia and at other campuses.

There are some who might ask whether students who need remediation are college material. But Mellow says the days when college was just for the top three percent are long over. In this economy, she says it's impossible to support a family with just a high-school diploma.

"Yes, we have to challenge ourselves to totally rethink who goes to college," she says. "And therefore it's incumbent on colleges to think, 'How do we teach in those colleges?'"

President Obama apparently agrees. He's proposed spending $12 billion to help community colleges improve their graduation rates.

But doing this will also require training for teachers. Students who have taken remedial math before at LaGuardia say the quality of instruction varies in their classes, and in the crowded math lab. Most math teachers aren't full-time.

Test your math skills. Can you solve the practice questions on the WNYC News Blog?

"To graph an equation you can make a table or you can get it into Y equals MX plus B," an instructor says.

Twenty-year-old Jesus Espinoza is all for making math more relevant. He graduated from Aviation High School, where he says he excelled in classes that asked him to figure out how much fuel he'd need in a tank. But he failed his math Regents.

"It was just numbers to me. And in the shop class, I'd be like 'Oh my God, it's the airplane, I have to do this, I have to find out why it's like that.' They should do it, like, put your math courses toward what you want to do in your future life. So you'd be interested in it, because you'd want to do it," he says.

Espinoza says he worked in maintenance at LaGuardia airport after high school, but the wages were low so he enrolled in college. He passed the remedial math class taught by Jorge Perez and now wants to become a civil engineer.

Professor Perez says he's willing to try whatever it takes to help more of his students succeed. Though he wants them all to pass his class, he says ten out of 32 is still an accomplishment given the hurdles.

"Ten students for me is a great success," he says, "because those are ten future professionals that are going to help our country, to keep advantage in technology, to keep good services for the people in the country."

And to prove to themselves, he says, that they can accomplish much more than they expected.

Revisit the entire "Adding It Up" series on the WNYC News Blog.