UI officials concerned about math placement scores


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At the University of Iowa Faculty Council’s meeting Tuesday, officials expressed a concern for the lack of preparation in mathematics by incoming UI students.

After admission to the university, all new students who have not taken a calculus course must complete the ALEKS math-placement test. The results of the test determine which math class students are eligible to enroll in.

Faculty Council member and mathematics Professor Paul Muhly said the test has been successful in reducing the number of students who receive Ds or Fs in their first math courses or withdraw from them entirely.

However, Muhly pointed to a problem that the ALEKS test has revealed —73 percent of students coming into the College of Liberal Arts and Science are unprepared to begin college calculus.

“A couple things really stand out,” he said. “If you think in terms of the needs of the [science, technology, engineering, and math] disciplines, that level of preparedness should be where students are when they enter the university.”

He also noted that 58 percent of incoming business students and 70 percent of incoming nursing students did not score high enough to be eligible for calculus; 19 percent of incoming engineering students did not meet the threshold.

“Pedagogically, calculus is the coin of the realm,” Muhly said. “If students are not prepared at that level as they enter the university, they have to take remediation.”

Muhly said there is a disconnect between the standards of the Iowa Core Curriculum and what is required at the university level.

“There was not a single practicing mathematician, scientist, or engineer [on the team that designed the Iowa Core Curriculum],” he said.

He also nopted a conflict of interest between a member of the team that drew up the Iowa Core Curriculum and his involvement with textbook companies.

Muhly emphasized the necessity of academia’s role in constructing the standards for high-school students.

“It’s important that we let the state, the Department of Education, and the teachers in the school districts know what their students need to know in order to be successful at the University of Iowa,” he said. “They need to understand what the students need to get. Otherwise, they’re not going to succeed.”

Iowa is a member state of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a group of states created to align curriculum standards as part of the Common Core initiative, which began four years ago.

“It wasn’t until about two years ago that the National Governors’ Association said, ‘Well, what is the role of postsecondary institutions in these consortia?’ said Diana Gonzalez, the chief academic officer for the state Board of Regents. “The answer was nowhere.”

She said that there was an effort to provide a perspective from academia in the consortium at that time. Gonzalez was chosen for the state of Iowa, and she created an advisory team that she described as the “lifeblood” of that insight in the consortium.

She said that the postsecondary institution team has been instrumental in identifying the gap between 11th grade mathematics testing and students’ entrance into university and in developing transition guides to inform high schools what skills and knowledge students need for college.

UI internal medicine Professor François Abboud expressed an interest in how the standards are structured, and Gonzalez said they are grouped by different levels of proficiency per grade level.

Gonzalez also said the universities had to persuade the state to allow them to keep in place their own placement tests. 

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