Student petition blasts WSU math program

Sunday , July 20, 2014 - 7:43 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- It’s not unusual to see students break down into tears because of Weber State University’s Developmental Mathematics Program, according to Lauralee Stephens Kohl.

The program was already difficult for students who are struggling with math, and changes to the program only add obstacles to graduation, she said. That’s why she’s circulating a petition to stop the changes.

“It’s like an abyss,” Kohl, of Brigham City, said of the program. “Once you get in it, you feel like you just can’t get out.”

Kathryn Van Wagoner, director of the Developmental Math Program, says many of the concerns listed in the petition are based on misinformation or misunderstandings.

“I have received some emails from students about some information they were given, and it’s actually not correct information,” she said. “We are transitioning to this new plan, so we’ve been refining and verifying our internal communications prior to making a formal announcement of the new plan, and student concerns have brought to my attention some information that has to be corrected on the website.”

Jeff Henry, president of WSU’s Student Senate, sat down with Van Wagoner to discuss the rumors about the program changes.

“I wanted to get an understanding of what exactly is happening,” he said. “From what she’s explained ... the new changes are going to be beneficial to students.”

Developmental math is, essentially, pre-college math for students whose skills are not quite up to college standards. According to WSU’s website, 75 percent of public four-year universities across the nation offer developmental classes.

The first complaint Kohl lists in her petition is the practice of placing holds on students who have not completed developmental math classes within a certain period of time. Until those classes are completed, no other classes can be taken.

Van Wagoner says that practice has been gone since January. The idea was to motivate students to complete the classes, instead of causing bigger problems for themselves through procrastination. It didn’t work.

At the heart of Kohl’s petition is the use of Accuplacer exams to determine in which class to place students, based on their math skills.

“When I started ... you could take unlimited AccuPlacer placement tests,” Kohl said.

It cost students $10 per test, but many were willing to take them several times in an attempt to score high enough to get out of taking certain classes. Now the number of times a test can be taken has been limited, she said.

“We made that change quite some time ago,” said Van Wagoner, “because students were repeatedly testing and not making any improvement in their placement, and basically throwing their money away.”

Now students have two attempts at the placement test, which is enough to allow a retake, said Van Wagoner. More should not be necessary, because the point of a placement test is to find out what math do you know, so you are put into the right class.

Henry agrees that taking the test multiple times isn’t helpful.

“If I’m taking it 15 times, I’m really guessing — I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said, adding that the current policy of allowing the test just twice a year is fair and reasonable.

Starting Aug. 25., the Accuplacer test won’t even be used for math placement. It’s being replaced by a weighted rubric of high school GPA and ACT math scores.

“We’ve eliminated the need for students to take a placement test,” Van Wagoner said. “We did an internal review of past student success, and found ACT scores and GPA were a good indicator of student success.”

Students who don’t have an ACT score, or who want to improve their placement, will now be given the “Math Mastery” exam.

Kohl objects to the “Math Mastery” exam, saying it’s based on the school’s 0950 and 0990 math courses.

“The math program has a 60 percent fail rate at Weber State, so you’re not teaching the essential skills needed,” she said, adding that the curriculum should be fixed before it’s the basis of testing.

She says she spent three times the required hours working on math assignments, and never improved until she took math classes from a private tutoring business.

Van Wagoner says changes have been made. In addition to online classes and a TERM (Technology Enhanced Redesign of Mathematics) self-paced course, which students do on their own with help available from tutors, the program is offering developmental math classes in flipped form. Flipped classes ask students to study lessons at home, and then meet in a classroom, with a teacher, four days a week while working through assignments.

The program is also starting a new “Pathway to Contemporary Mathematics” (Math 0810) class, for students who aren’t going into science, technology, engineering or math.

“It’s not necessarily less rigorous, it’s just more relevant to the student,” said Van Wagoner, explaining that it has less emphasis on algebra.

Kohl’s petition also says the “Math Mastery” exam can only be taken once a year, and will be more difficult to pass because it’s fill in the blanks instead of multiple choice.

“It’s tricky. If you put in 0.5 instead of 1/2, it’s wrong,” she said.

That is true, said Van Wagoner, but each question will tell you the format in which the answer should be written.

Joanna Bushell, of Ogden, signed Kohl’s petition. She is one of several students who has been taking private math classes to learn skills, and then taking AccuPlacer tests multiple times at an applied technology college.

“It’s not a trick — you have to know math to pass,” she said. “There’s no way to just fumble your way through AccuPlacer and get an accidental passing grade.”

Taking the test multiple times is for practice.

“Once you feel confident you can pass it consistently, you go to Weber State and hope you can pass,” she said.

Carin Mann, of Layton, is using AccuPlacer to test out of math completely.

“I’m not even signed up for math at Weber State University,” she said. “I heard horrible things about it, and that nobody can pass it.”

Bushell says eliminating AccuPlacer tests forces students into developmental math classes at WSU.

“They’re gradually narrowing it down so your only option is to take two years, or four semesters, of their math classes,” she said.

She’s afraid the real reason for doing away with AccuPlacer is monetary, because students would have to pay for WSU classes instead of private tutoring.

“I would imagine it’s a great money maker for the university,” she said.

The new policies apply to all students, no matter when they started at WSU, according to Kohl.

Because the “Math Mastery” test takes over on Aug. 25, students who were counting on testing out through AccuPlacer are in a pinch.

“They should have to give more notice,” said Bushell. “I just need to test out of math to get my degree. ... I have approximately 30 days to do it.”

Van Wagoner says every change that’s been made has been with the goal of having students take fewer math classes, and get to graduation.

“We want them to be successful in their math,” she said.

She knows the changes make for a complex situation, and encourages students to meet with advisers on a regular basis.

“If there is any student who has any kinds of concerns about math, I would be glad to meet with them,” she said.

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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