Intermediate Algebra is NOT College Math ! :(

I actually spend a fair amount of time looking at other colleges math courses, partly from my interest in seeing how many colleges are doing New Life Project courses (Mathematical Literacy, Algebraic Literacy).  From that work, it is clear that the landscape is changing in both beginning algebra and general education mathematics.  However, two patterns are still present:

  1. We continue to offer one or more courses in arithmetic focusing on procedures.  The presence of these courses is a tragedy on our campuses, since they negatively impact exactly the student groups we want to help (minority, poor).  I’ve posted on these issues earlier this year.
  2. We frequently classify intermediate algebra as a college course, and commonly use it as a general education requirement.  Using a course which mimics a high school course in this way is professional embarrassment.  That’s the topic of this post.

We all know that “intermediate algebra” varies considerably between colleges, states, and regions.  In some cases, the intermediate algebra course has content at the level of the Common Core Mathematics (see ) within the algebra and functions categories.  In most cases, however, our intermediate algebra courses fall below those expectations.

Intermediate algebra is a remedial course!!

The primary distinction between K-12 algebra and intermediate algebra is assessment — the college intermediate algebra course most likely requires a higher level of performance by the student in order to earn a passing grade.   It’s like “So, you were supposed to have learned this stuff in high school but NOW you are going to have to REALLY know that stuff.”

However, in many ways, our intermediate algebra (IA) courses are inferior copies of the K-12 curriculum.  Our IA courses are still descendants of copies of Algebra II from the 1970’s; much emphasis on procedures and correct answers … not much dealing with reasoning.  Given that we don’t deal with most of the discipline issues that occupy a K-12 teacher’s time, we should to better.    The K-12 content has responded to a series of standards (NCTM, Common Core) while our intermediate algebra has been standing still.

The Algebraic Literacy (AL) course is a modern system to help students get ready for college mathematics.  However, AL is still “not college math”, even though AL raises the expectations for students.

Entire states use intermediate algebra (IA) as an associate degree requirement.  In Michigan, which lacks a central governing body for community colleges, most colleges use that as one option for degrees.

We can, and must, do better.  If students do not need a course like Pre-Calculus, then we should use quantitative reasoning (QR) or statistics for their degree requirement … or even a course like ‘finite mathematics’.

Personally, I think intermediate algebra must die (and soon).  The issue in this post is whether a K-12 level standard course should be used for associate degree requirements.  Beyond the criteria of ‘expediency’, there is no rationale for that use.  IA is remedial, not college level.

Let’s MOVE ON!!

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  • By Peter Brown, May 21, 2016 @ 5:26 pm

    Jack, your being too kind. Please bring this up in Lansing.

  • By Jack Rotman, May 27, 2016 @ 1:16 pm

    This may not be an appropriate use for “RM@RT”.

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