21 July 2017

STEM, Attrition and Readiness

Barbie wasn't wrong. Math is hard. Weak mathematics background is the greatest barrier to successful completion of a college education at all levels, and STEM classes are failed at a higher rate than any other kind of course in the college curriculum. This post lays out those facts without engaging in the question that naturally follows: "Should mathematics and STEM requirements be waived for students in non-STEM fields, at least at the community college level?"

It is a question about which I have a lot of ambivalence, particularly because it is possible to remediate poor mathematics instruction, which involves a very narrow set of information and skills, to a much greater extent that it is to remediate weak reading and writing skills, which involve a broader base of knowledge and abilities.
Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads. It is also the single most failed course in community colleges across the country. . . . At American community colleges, 60 percent of those enrolled are required to take at least one math course. Most — nearly 80 percent — never complete that requirement.
From here.
Only about 25% of community college students in Colorado receive a degree (typically a two year program) or certificate (often a less than two year program) in three years, despite the lower achievement threshold involved than a bachelor's degree, and at the Community College of Denver the graduation rate is half that. Most community college students need remedial work before advancing to college level work, and their ultimate prospects of getting a degree are particularly low.
From an October 7, 2016 post at this blog.

The predominant reason that high school graduates are unprepared for college level work is that they need remedial mathematics instruction.
Many who do go to college need remedial work when they get there (a long standing issues that has been discussed before at this blog). The numbers describing Colorado students who started college in the fall of 2008 tell the story. 
Of those starting two year college: 
52.7% needed remedial help in math, reading or writing.
40% needed remedial help in math.
17% needed remedial help in math, reading and writing. 
Of those starting four year college: 
19% needed help in math, reading, or writing.
16% needed help in math. 
Thus, math is the dominant subject in which high school graduates need remedial work. While 40% of those starting two year college need remedial work in math, just 12.7% of those starting two year college need remedial work in reading and/or writing but not math . . . . While 16% of those starting four year college need remedial work in math, just 3% of those starting four year college need remedial work in reading and/or writing, but not math.
From a February 9, 2010 post at this blog. See also a February 15, 2011 post at this blog covering in depth the following year's similar remediation report, and a December 31, 2008 post on the subject of remedial courses for college students.

Students who need remedial work in mathematics are much, much less likely to graduate than those who do not, in part, because of the remediation requirement which slows down the process of getting into real college work and is simply insurmountable for some students, and in part, because it is a litmus test for poor preparation for college and low academic ability in general.

But, it certainly isn't entirely about IQ. For example, in the early 2000s, among students identified as "gifted and talented" (i.e. in the 98th percentile of better on standardized tests) by the Denver Public Schools, some high schools sent almost all to college without needing remediation, while others had less than 19% of its gifting and talented students achieve this feat. Weak high school instructional opportunities did hold back even gifted and talented students.

The likelihood that a student will meet a community college math requirement is closely tied to how far along a student was before attending community college.

In four year colleges, calculus, physics and chemistry are probably the two most failed classes, with failure rates for students enrolled in those courses often at around 50%. Many students who are interested in pursuing STEM careers when they leave high school ultimately abandon that idea: about 40% of incoming students who plan on entering science and engineering majors at the outset, and about 60% of pre-med students change majors or don't graduate.

STEM is hard. There are right and wrong answers. There is no room for the benefit of the doubt. And, there is empirical evidence that below a certain threshold of ability (however acquired) at the outset of a college career that hard work doesn't help enough to allow you to succeed as a STEM major.

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