Oliva: Changes needed in Arkansas' middle, high school math program

Cutting remedial load called goal

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva addresses the audience at the Arise Conference on charter schools at the Robinson Center in Little Rock in this May 23, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva said Thursday that adjustments are needed in middle and high school math instruction to eliminate the need for students to take remedial math courses in college.

Taking Algebra I earlier -- in the eighth grade instead of ninth grade -- would open up opportunities for more advanced math later, as would asking high school seniors to take a full course load, Oliva told the Arkansas Board of Education.

"A lot of times our students aren't ready to transition to college algebra," Oliva said. "We have got to plot out a better math path for our students. Our system can't be focused on remediation. It has to be focused on acceleration.

"We are going to fix this," he continued.

He said the issue is a priority and will be acted on with urgency.

"Our vision and hope is that there will be zero need for remediation courses at the post-secondary level."

Oliva made the comments after Arkansas' new commissioner for higher education, Ken Warden, in remarks to the Education Board, said that 35% of the state's high school graduates who enrolled full-time in the state's two- and four-year college and university campuses required remediation to qualify for credit-bearing college courses that count toward a degree.

Warden, in the higher education commissioner's role since June 1, said those students were not ready to enroll directly into the college classes that they would be expected to enroll in as college freshmen.

Warden also said that two-thirds of that 35% actually graduated from high school with a grade-point average of 3.0, which is a "B" average.

There is some concern there, he said.

"The good news is that 96% of those who had some remediation passed that remedial activity and got into what they needed to get into in the first attempt," Warden said. "They were not stifled in their academic progress."

More and more, colleges are embedding the necessary remedial work into the college-level courses in English/composition and math -- with more extensive laboratory requirements and one-on-one tutoring. As a result, Warden said, students have been able to move forward and not lose a semester of credit-bearing course work.

Warden said there are efforts being made to look at entrance exams or activities or metrics that might work better than testing -- such as the ACT college entrance exam -- to determine student preparation for the college courses. He said that the student's grade point average may be a better indicator of student readiness for college than a score on a high-stakes test.

Oliva said that students who don't take Algebra I in eighth grade lose the chance to take more advanced math courses later in high schools.

He also noted that about one-third of high school seniors don't take a full course schedule in their final year of secondary education.

"I'm thinking there is a strong correlation where there is an opportunity to take more math and English courses instead of going home and hanging out," Oliva said. "We have to change the mindset. We have to change the culture. We have to change the expectation because the correlations are very significant."