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State board boosts math requirement

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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FITCHBURG — Getting admitted to a four-year public university in Massachusetts just got harder.

The Massachusetts Board of Higher Education voted unanimously yesterday to require high school students seeking admission to a state university to take four years of math in high school, in an effort to boost college completion rates and to expose students from low-income communities to a more rigorous curriculum that better meets the expectations of colleges.

Studies have linked the level of math taken in high school to a reduced need for remediation in college and a better chance of graduating. Currently, Massachusetts public college admissions standards require a minimum of three years of math.

The change will be effective for college freshmen enrolling in fall 2016, giving colleges a chance to change their admissions policies and high schools the time to obtain the resources to hire more teachers.

“One of the most powerful ways we in higher education can signal our expectations is what we require in our admissions standards,’’ Richard Freeland, state commissioner of higher education, said at yesterday’s Board of Higher Education meeting at Fitchburg State University. “This is a significant step forward.’’

Nationally, 10 states require four years of math for public college admissions, and more are expected to do so, said higher education officials.

In 2007, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved a high school program of studies that recommended four years of math to reduce the number of students taking remedial courses in college, but it was up to individual school systems to decide whether or not to require it.

Since then, the number of high schools that raised their math graduation requirements to four years increased from 74 to 94. The majority of high schools, 204, still require only three years of math to graduate.

Within the University of Massachusetts system, which has four undergraduate research campuses, 5.4 percent of full-time freshmen are enrolled in remedial math courses. Among the nine state universities, 18 percent of the freshmen take remedial math, according to the state Department of Higher Education.

Charles Desmond, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, said it is not enough to raise admissions standards. Universities must also collaborate thoughtfully with high school teachers on developing a more rigorous math curriculum, as well as train more math teachers, he said.

The plan mandates that public universities’ admissions standards require students to take algebra I and II and geometry or trigonometry or comparable course work. They must also take math during their senior year in high school.

The move, board members said, will help address persistent barriers students in lower-income communities have to higher level math courses. African-American and Latino students are half as likely as their Asian and Caucasian peers to take higher-level math courses, state officials said.

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.