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Washington’s community colleges are rethinking the kind of math students must know to earn a college degree, and finding innovative new ways to teach a subject that trips up more students than any other.

Emporium Math Lab Big Bend Community College Moses Lake WADena DeYoung traces her trouble with math back to sixth grade, when a well-intended placement test showed she was smart enough to do advanced work.

And for several years, DeYoung did well. But when she reached high school, math became her worst subject. Lost by the logic, unable to imagine how what she was learning would ever come into play in the real world, her math grades plummeted.

“I just never got it,” DeYoung said. “I was barely scraping by. It was just a nightmare.”

DeYoung eventually dropped out of her Shoreline school, and while math was not the only reason, it didn’t help. Instead of a high-school diploma, the promising student earned a General Educational Development degree, or GED.

More than any other subject, math trips up students who might otherwise thrive in college, especially those who don’t plan to go into technical careers that require proficiency with numbers.

Failing the state’s math test keeps hundreds of students from graduating from high school each year, even when they’ve met every other requirement. Math is the reason why half of Washington’s high-school students who enter community college must take remedial classes — which few ever pass, even after years of struggle.

A lot of effort has gone into thinking — and arguing — about how best to teach math, hoping to keep it from being such a barrier to higher education. But the math problem also has caused leaders of Washington’s community colleges to ask a fundamental question: How much math, and what kind, should be required for a student to earn a college degree?

Their answer, increasingly, is that there is no one answer.

Students who are studying to become nurses, social workers, early-childhood educators or carpenters may never use intermediate algebra, much less calculus. Yet for years, community colleges have used a one-size-fits-all math approach that’s heavy on algebra and preps students for calculus.

Read the full Seattle Times article here.


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