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Math Readiness

A person about to cross a partially finished bridge over a body of water of math equations, the bridge being worked on by a pencil, on the opposite side of which is a college campus

solving the math readiness equation

One thing has remained a constant in Marcia Vergo's career as a math instructor. When she introduces herself to strangers, they reply by telling her they stink at math.

"I hear that a lot," said Vergo, a Metropolitan Community College instructor who started with the College as a math center coordinator.

According to 2020 information from the National Academy of Science, nearly 6 out of every 10 community college students and 1 in 3 four-year college students need developmental math classes to be able to begin attaining their degree College math readiness is a significant barrier to postsecondary completion - only 25% of students who need developmental math ever complete a degree or program.

Getting more students to come to college with a better understanding of math was the problem Vergo was looking to work on when she went on sabbatical in 2011.

"I could see through my tutoring experience that if students were simply passed through math without really understanding it, they didn't necessarily succeed," Vergo said.

 The idea she came back with, and subsequently helped implement at Gretna High School, is now gaining traction as a program model across most of Nebraska's community colleges as part of the collaborative Nebraska Math Readiness Project. The goal of NMRP is "to be the statewide, systematic approach that addresses the low percentage of Nebraska high school students who are college-ready in math upon high school graduation."

"I visited different schools around the country that had a developmental math module. It was guided by a software program, everyone was in a big room working at their own pace but all with a deadline to complete the course. After looking at all the different modules, I came back to my dean and said, 'I think there are so many students who would benefit from this,'" Vergo said.

MCC piloted its new instructional approach at Gretna High School in 2015, three years before the launch of NMRP, which is designed to support high school students who have the desire to go on to college but need to further develop foundational math skills to succeed on arrival. For the first four years of NMRP, each community college worked independently to boost college-level math proficiency in their academic regions of the state. This year, several of Nebraska's community colleges are working from a dual enrollment model that is similar to the MCC program design. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to take college classes for credit while still enrolled in high school.

Mike Flesch, MCC dean of math and natural sciences, said reaching students who need developmental math classes for college while they are still in high school is key to the College's program design.

First, it is more cost effective since dual enrollment programs at MCC are being offered for free to Nebraska high school students for the next three academic years. Second, developmental math classes taken in high school give students time to brush up on concepts and address gaps in their math background. Flesch said the program helps students gain confidence and take ownership of their learning during the process.

"We're trying to get students to be college-ready and stay out of the developmental loop. We want them to arrive on a college campus ready to succeed in college-level courses," Flesch said. "In NMRP, many can complete the credit-level math class needed for their degree. The program can plant a seed that they are capable and widen their horizons to what is possible after graduation."

The student population enrolling in the NMRP program has a mean ACT score around 16.8. Students who score 20 and below traditionally are not considered college-ready. Most are required to begin in developmental coursework. These students may take the least amount of math in high school that is required, and many avoid taking a math class as a senior. Flesch said the College is encouraging students to take a fourth year of math and use their senior year to solidify their math foundation.

Due to the long-range nature of tracking outcomes, the available data sample is small, but NMRP is showing signs of breaking down the math barrier. Math readiness scores for students in the College's NMRP region are outperforming national averages, and in convincing fashion based on the 2021-22 student performance data. Of the 405 students enrolled in the program last year - a population who would not have been considered college-ready because of their ACT scores upon entering the program - more than 90% completed at least one NMRP class. More than 61% of MCC NMRP participants are considered college-ready (as opposed to the 33% national average). More than 20% completed the credit-level course required for many of the College's two-year programs.

The reach of the program is growing significantly, highlighted by the largest school district in the state, Omaha Public Schools, expanding its NMRP offerings to students in all OPS high schools this year. NMRP reaches across more than 50 high schools and 40 school districts; about 1,000 students are enrolled for the 2022-23 academic year across the state of Nebraska. MCC serves 13 districts in its four-county service region.

Of the 185 students to complete the first cohort of the program (students who have completed two years of college), 74% enrolled in college; 72% persisted to the second year of college; and their cumulative grade-point average was 2.94. The median grade in credit math courses was a B+.

"A lot of these students are first-generation college students, so I think this program has multiple ways of affecting young people, not only by improving their math skills, but to give them the vision, 'I could go to college,'" Flesch said.

The year-long program employs a diagnostic and computer-assisted learning approach that combines online, self-paced interactive learning with highly engaged instruction and coaching focused on addressing individual learning gaps. Collaborative oversight and evaluation by the University of Nebraska Omaha informs continuous improvement of student performance.

Class sizes are limited and instruction is presented in a modular format, covering categories like positive and negative integers; fractions; decimals; ratios; proportions and percentages; and solving equations. Each module has homework and quizzes that must be passed at 80% or higher before moving on to the next unit. Many learning resources are built into the program to support student learning. If students don't pass, they work with an instructor one-on-one to work through the concepts in more detail.

"Those are valuable teaching moments," Vergo said.

During these one-on-one interactions, she said students are able to gain an understanding of concepts that don't always crystalize during group lectures due to the different learning styles of students and pace of instruction.

There are two tracks to the program: one designed for students who plan to enter the trades and the other for students who plan to pursue a degree at a four-year college. Flesch and Vergo said the contextualization of the material for either track is important for two reasons. For the trades, course content is specific to the industry they are entering. For the four-year college track, it covers the student for the many different roles a bachelor's degree can serve.

"The most applicable thing you learn in math, no matter your career, is it teaches you to think logically, Vergo said. "We also don't know where life is going to take us. Just like packing to go on a trip, you have to take a little of everything sometimes so you're prepared for whatever happens. If you go on in life without math, you're limiting yourself quite a bit."

There's also a lot of practical applications, from tracking the effectiveness of financial investments over time to knowing how many gallons of paint to buy for a wall that needs a new color. Seeing students advance through the modules, make connections that didn't seem possible before and realize college is a place they can go is what energizes Vergo the most.

"I'll never forget a girl who was retaking her test and needed to get an 80% before she could move on. When she passed she was so excited and said, 'I have never scored 80% on a math test before, and I can't wait to go home and tell my mom,'" Vergo said. "It is so wonderful to see the students dig in and want to make something better for themselves."