University stands by testing that keeps many from graduating
Kim Kozlowski / The Detroit News
Two years after Mishelle Kennedy finished her classes at Wayne State University, she still can't get her degree.
The Royal Oak Township resident is being held up because she can't pass a math test — a requirement that administrators say is at the level of high school math. While 1,970 students graduated last weekend from WSU, an estimated 1,500 others couldn't because they are in the same bind as Kennedy.
The situation is the result of math placement policies that changed five years ago, but are still impacting students today as WSU works to help these students graduate.
For Kennedy, 43, the lack of a degree means she can't further her career as a state social worker and possibly earn up to $10,000 more annually to support her four children.
"I can count my money, I can take 33 percent off of a dress on sale at Macy's. Why do I need algebra?" said Kennedy, who is taking the test again in January.
"Give me math that I would use as a social worker. It is so unfair."
Howard Shapiro, associate vice president for student services and undergraduate affairs, said his heart goes out to students like Kennedy who are unable to graduate because they can't pass the math test.
But the university has tutoring, supplemental instruction and other supports to help those who are struggling.
He is proud of the university's high math standards, saying they teach students to think critically.
"We wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't have a math standard and have people live up to it," Shapiro said.
"We should be more subject to criticism if we don't get people to do math at a reasonable college level."
The subject of scores of national reports, math is widely regarded as necessary in technology, business, finance and health and critical to global competition.
Not all schools the same
Many universities require basic math to graduate.
At the University of Michigan, there isn't a universal math requirement. Faculty at each of the 19 schools and colleges outline graduation requirements, according to Gretchen Weir, assistant vice provost for academic affairs. Most have a quantitative or analytical reasoning requirement for a baccalaureate degree, but that could be satisfied by courses other than math, such as philosophy, astronomy, economics, statistics, physics or even analytical communications.
A few miles away at Eastern Michigan University, students are required to take a mathematical reasoning class, which includes probability, statistics and practical math applications.
However, that class might be waived based on an incoming student's ACT scores, said Chris Shell, EMU registrar. The student may also be able to satisfy the requirement through other courses such as sociology, logic or statistics.
"Not all of our students will show a math class on their transcript," Shell said.
Testing to place in math classes is also available at EMU if a student wants to take a course that is more advanced than where students' ACT or SAT scores place them.
The policies at EMU are similar to the current math policies at WSU.
But before 2005, WSU did not rely on college prep tests to determine which math classes students should take. Instead, students took a WSU proficiency test for math placement if their major required it. Those who failed the test had to pass a remedial math course.
Extra help offered
Students who feared math often put the test off until their later years and frequently dropped the remedial class, or didn't take it at all, Shapiro said. They would count on taking the test again to satisfy the math requirement for graduation. As result, the placement test has turned into a math exit exam for a backlog of students ready to graduate.
In 2004, a committee reviewed the policies that led to changes. Since then, extra help has been put in place to get these students their degrees.
"Is algebra a fundamental skill for life? I don't know," Shapiro said. "But (it) is important to your critical thinking skills. Later, maybe I can't factor a polynomial, but the fact I've learned that does affect how I learn about other things."
But Sarah Brubaker, who's graduating in May, said there's a reason so many people are struggling.
"I know the university has reasons for doing things, but something I feel this test is harder than it used to be," said Brubaker, 23, of Saline.
In the early 1990s, a required WSU English proficiency test was unsuccessfully challenged in a high-profile lawsuit filed by students, who claimed the test discriminated against African-Americans, who earned enough credits to graduate but failed the test several times.
Among the plaintiffs was former Detroit school board President Otis Mathis, who recently was sentenced to probation for fondling himself in front of a DPS school superintendent. WSU students were required to take the English proficiency test in their third year, but it was dropped in 2007 after university officials raised the bar in the first-year English course, Shapiro said.
Some students have wondered if WSU dropped the English proficiency test because of a growing number of foreign students who struggled with it.
But Shapiro called that theory "nonsense."
It is unclear how many students cannot graduate because they must pass the math test.
That is a closely guarded number, said Frank Koscielski, a WSU academic adviser and recruiter.
Shapiro was unaware of the exact figure but said "it could be" 1,500. He expected the backlog to be cleared up within a year or two.
The test, which is offered regularly at WSU, includes 25 questions. Students must get 14 correct to pass, Shapiro said. An online practice test included math problems using basic skills in percentages, algebra and trigonometry.
Anxiety builds for students
Before a recent test, many students expressed anxiety because they had taken the test before.
Kaitlyn Kowalewski, a photography major, was taking the test for the third time. "I tried to go to tutoring and one kid that helped me had to look up things online," said Kowalewski, 21, of Mount Clemens. "I want to be done. I am on track to graduate."
This test is one of the biggest frustrations for nontraditional students who have been out of school for years, said Beverly Hand, 49, who was taking the test for the fourth time. She has written to the president, Board of Governors and other university officials.
"I don't know what it is about this test," said Hand of Detroit. "People have to take it so many times. "This has been my biggest problem. If I pass this test, I could be done with this place."