Monday's editorial, "Too many students come unprepared," brought to light some interesting facts and ideas about students entering college, especially in regard to their mathematics preparation.
When students enter the University of Minnesota, they take a placement test to determine the level at which they should begin their study of mathematics. As a professor of developmental mathematics for the past 34 years, I have talked to thousands of students who thought their placement was too low (e.g., they took precalculus in high school, but the test placed them into elementary algebra). Sometimes the placement is just plain wrong, and we can easily fix that. Often, however, after talking to the students and finding out what they really know, I can convince them that they are not ready for college-level mathematics and that they need a review of elementary or intermediate algebra. Thankfully, the U offers such courses through the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning (formerly the General College). Taking a review course costs the students time and money, but it generally pays off in the long run when they move on to college-level courses that use mathematics.
Many of my colleagues and I have tried to figure out whose "fault" it is that some students who are admitted to the U cannot do the high school algebra needed for college-level mathematics, even though they have successfully completed four years of high school mathematics. There are lots of possibilities: poor high school math teachers, a watered-down high school math curriculum, giving students credit for "seat time" and passing them along, poor academic and advising support from their schools, poor parental support, and a lack of maturity and motivation on the part of the students themselves. Much of the time, the reasons for the lack of preparation are a combination of several of the above. Most high school math teachers are quite good, and many are excellent, but if several of the other negative factors exist, many students are doomed to fail, no matter how good their teacher is.
What to do? We cannot send unprepared students back to high school. We could tell them to prepare on their own and come back to college when they truly are ready, but learning mathematics is difficult for most people to do on their own. We could encourage them to enroll in remedial courses in their first semester of college. That seems like the best bet to me, so I disagree with the editorial that "classrooms at community colleges shouldn't be built to accommodate learning that should have happened in high school." Lack of preparation is a problem that will not be fixed by ignoring it.
Even though here at the U only the "best and the brightest" now are being admitted, we still address the needs of students who require extra help in mathematics. Some register directly for my algebra review courses, and others drop back to those courses from precalculus or college algebra because they realize they are not prepared.
Colleges cannot and should not ignore the needs of students they have admitted. They must continue to serve those students until the problem is fixed at the high school level. I doubt that will happen in my lifetime -- the problem is simply too complex.
Douglas F. Robertson is a professor of developmental mathematics and computing at the University of Minnesota.