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Analysis: CSU adding another admissions requirement will create a slew of new problems for already-underserved students, including the most high achieving

Jesse Melgares | December 2, 2019

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Students focus on their work at Ouchi-O’Donovan 6-12 Complex. (Alliance College-Ready Public Schools)

Few things are more important to educators than our students’ growth. We track their progress and proficiency, we listen to their concerns, we identify obstacles that stand in their way, and we do everything possible to help them overcome those obstacles.

So when officials at the California State University system announce they’re considering increasing the admissions requirements for incoming freshmen, we pay attention. Will students meet those requirements? Can schools provide those courses? A decision to add just one requirement can prevent California students who don’t have access to these courses from being admitted to our state’s public universities.

The CSU’s chancellor and Board of Trustees will vote in January on whether to require high school students to take a fourth-year math or quantitative reasoning course in order to be eligible for admission. As the director of mathematics for a network of 25 6th-12th grade schools in Los Angeles, I appreciate that higher education leaders are trying to tackle a real problem and make sure students are better prepared for college. But their proposal won’t solve that problem. It will create a slew of other problems for students in systematically underserved communities who need help the most, as well as for high-achieving students.

At many high schools across California, here’s what will happen if CSU requires a fourth year of math:

Principals will look to see if they have a teacher who can teach a class on, say, statistics. A lot of them will find they don’t have a teacher qualified to teach the course. After all, California is experiencing a severe shortage of teachers, particularly math teachers. A disproportionate number of those schools serve low-income communities.

Principals of smaller schools might have to make difficult choices about which 4th-year course they can offer. For example, if a school only has the capacity to offer one 4th-year course, like AP Calculus, but not everyone meets the prerequisites to enter that advanced math class then the school will need to offer a quantitative reasoning course, like statistics, so that students are eligible to meet the CSU requirements. But that would mean that the AP Calculus course needs to be cut — denying those students the chance to earn college credits.

Or a principal might need to give an existing teacher another course to teach, further burdening teachers who are already spread thin.

Math teacher Christopher Estrada leads a lesson at Renee and Meyer Luskin High School. (Alliance College-Ready Public Schools)

It would simply be unfair for CSU to require a fourth year of math, when not every high school would be able to offer it. In fact, already many California schools — a third, by one estimate — don’t offer all of the courses required by the CSU and UC systems.

Quantitative reasoning teaches valuable skills, and for those students with access to the courses, the instruction can be valuable. But while CSU has found that students who take more math or science in high school are more likely to graduate, there’s no way to know if extra courses are a key factor in those students’ college completion rates. The data show correlation but not causation, which, ironically, is exactly the kind of lesson found in a quantitative reasoning course.

Altering the admissions requirements of one of the world’s largest university systems is no small decision. It should be done with an abundance of research and care, rather than hastily.

Meanwhile, state officials and educators should work together to strengthen the courses that are already being taught in high school. As someone who helps oversee curriculum and instruction for over 13,000 scholars, I’m the first to admit that schools should continually refine our course offerings to make sure we’re preparing our students for college and careers. It’s important that schools more closely align their teaching to the Common Core State Standards. But to take this a step further, the state should be continually examining and refining its standards to make sure they reflect the skills that will be most valuable in tomorrow’s workforce.

All public schools need more resources and support. California is 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending. Spending more on our students would help us improve their outcomes. We also need help recruiting and retaining more teachers, especially those who are qualified to teach advanced courses.

Classroom teachers in the K-12 and higher education systems are already asked to accomplish the extraordinary with minimal resources. Rather than imposing a new requirement that would further constrict these resources, state officials should work with teachers to develop policies that strengthen our capacity to provide a better education to our students.

Jesse Melgares is director of mathematics for 25 6th-12th grade schools in Los Angeles that are part of the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter network.

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