Algebra is a problem—and not a binomial one, either. A stunning 60 percent of incoming community college students have to take remedial math classes due to lack of skill in algebra. Four-year public colleges see 40 percent of their incoming students taking at least one remedial class, and a third of those are remedial math classes.

While some of this could be attributed to the fact that many community college students are older, and it’s been quite a while since the typical adult enrollee learned how to do quadratic equations, limited preparation of high school students is also to blame.

For many of those older students, algebra was taught in the ninth grade, and many of them may not have taken an algebra class at all, even if high schools required four years of math classes in order to graduate. But what happened to the younger students, many of whom took algebra in the seventh or eighth grades?

Maybe they weren’t ready to understand the abstract concepts taught in algebra. Maybe they weren’t adequately prepared with basic skills in elementary school and lower middle school grades. Maybe they haven’t had an opportunity to see that algebra is relevant in a wide variety of career fields.

Whatever the case, the end result is that a staggering number of college students end up in remedial math classes, and many of them had actually taken algebra in middle school or high school.

The trouble is that remedial classes at the college level cost money but don’t provide college credit. This could cause students to get frustrated and drop out. This is especially true if those students could pass a college-level algebra class if they were simply given the chance to do so.

But to determine if students are ready for college-level work, colleges often rely on test scores—on the ACT, SAT, or Accuplacer—as placement tools. But according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, 40 percent of “strongly prepared” community college students (as determined by grade point average and level of math taken in high school) and 13 percent at four-year colleges, had taken remedial math.

Does that mean students are less prepared than their high school teachers think they are, or does it mean that standardized test scores aren’t a fair arbiter of readiness for college-level work? Probably a little from Column A and a little from Column B. But these “strongly prepared” students will never know unless they’re allowed to take college-level courses.

The NCES study pointed out that moderately or strongly prepared students were more likely to get their degree if they skipped remedial classes and went straight to college-level classes.

The good news for students who do need remedial classes is that colleges are beginning to see that remedial classes can actually be a barrier to completion of a degree, and they’re offering “corequisite” remediation—that is, allowing students to enroll in college-level and remedial classes at the same time—or shorter “brush-up” classes rather than semester-long ones.

Of course, the ultimate question is, how many students actually need to pass algebra to have a successful academic career? Some students gravitate toward fields that require other types of math, such as statistics, while some students major in subjects that don’t require math at all to perform successfully. If a student does need remedial math classes, they should prepare that student for the math they will actually use, as they do in Texas: if a student will take statistics as part of their course of study, they take remedial classes focused on that rather than on algebra. Other states are either forming task forces to figure out how to deal with the algebra problem or they’ve already instituted reforms in their public colleges.

In the future, if colleges begin using data other than standardized tests and those that do use standardized tests take into account the math a student will need to succeed in their chosen major, algebra may no longer be the X factor that determines college success or failure.

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