'Adding it Up' Part 4: How They Scored

(photo by Stephen Nessen)

Getting out of remedial math is a two-step process at CUNY’s community colleges. Students have to get a 60% average in their class, and they have to pass an assessment known as COMPASS.

At LaGuardia Community College, 32 students registered for Jorge Perez’s remedial algebra class in September. Fifteen did well enough in their coursework to be eligible for COMPASS. Of those students, 13 actually showed up to take the exam on December 14, and ten of them passed.

That’s only a third of the class. But Professor Perez notes that it’s a majority of those who stayed. The class had already shrunk to 19 students by the mid-term. Some students found the work too difficult, or ran into other issues. A pregnant woman who sounded determined to pass the class in September said she had to drop the course because of doctor’s orders. She was also working full-time.

These low pass rates are typical of remedial students in community colleges. The problems start well before the students arrive in college. Educators are grappling with raising high school standards, and improving the teaching profession in K-12. In higher education, they’re looking at how to make the algebra and geometry covered in remedial math classes more relevant to students while providing them with more support in the form of tutoring centers and “learning communities” so students will take more of their classes together and feel like a smaller group.

But passing the class also requires students to make the effort. “Teaching is such a complex human endeavor,” Perez says. “I cannot cause anybody to learn. It’s motivation the students bring into the classroom that will make the difference.”

Below are a few of those motivated students. They can now move on to college-level algebra, pre-calculus, and statistics, depending on their majors.

Math, Danielle & Daewoodedit

Danielle Alba, 23, and Daewood Garita, 18. Alba was consistently the top student in Perez’s class even though she says she has dyslexia and did poorly in math during high school. Alba was the only student who passed both parts of the final exam. She attributed her success to hard work. She says, 'I just decided that it’s math. Anyone can do it. I can too.'

Math, Jesus after CompasseditJesus Espinoza plans to major in civil engineering now that he’s passed remedial algebra.
Math, lindaedit

Linda Dutan, 20, was thrilled to have passed remedial algebra because this was her second time taking the class. She’s majoring in photography.

Math, Victor after Compassedit

Victor Lopez, 25, said it 'feels good' to pass. He believes math has important lessons for life because, 'You have to be careful what you do, you have to think about repercussions.'


Elizabeth Rodriguez was among the three students who failed the COMPASS test. She had already taken the class twice before and says she knows the material when she practices problems on her own, but freezes up on the test. “It’s a personal block,” she explains. “An emotional thing with the math that I have to let go.” Perez encouraged her to take advantage of a free 30-hour workshop for students who fail the exam, so she can take it again. “I just gotta keep on trying,” she said.