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California State University Puts Off Decision to Require 4 Years of Math for Admissions

California State University, the nation's largest public university system, was planning to vote at the end of January on a requirement that incoming freshmen take four years of math or math-focused courses in high school, up from the current requirement of three years. 

Instead, the university system, with 23 campuses and nearly a half-million students, will allow an independent panel to study what changing those admissions standards may mean to students who are historically underrepresented in college, including black and Latino students, and students from low-income families. 

The move doesn't change the timeline for implementation; if approved, it would first go into effect for the high school class of 2027, who are today's 5th graders. But California State is asking trustees to delay a final vote until 2022. By that time, the trustees will have had an opportunity to review the findings of the independent panel. The trustees will also be able to evaluate the progress on CSU's efforts to increase the number of math and STEM teachers, and gain more clarity on exemptions and accommodations for students whose public schools don't offer the required classes.

Those extra steps for review offer "multiple reflection points and 'safety valves' that would allow the implementation timeline to be extended—or halted—if the policy is resulting in unintended consequences," says an updated agenda item released by the university system.

The 25-member board of trustees was scheduled to vote on the proposal in November, but pushed the vote until January at the request of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The Pros and Cons of Changing Admissions Standards

The Cal State system draws the vast majority of its student body from high schools in the state, and has historically been more accessible than the 10-campus University of California system. In the fall of 2019, about 44 percent of students in the CSU were Hispanic, 21 percent were white, 16 percent were Asian, and 4 percent were African American, roughly mirroring the demographics of the state's public school system. Nearly a third of undergraduates that year were the first in their families to attend college.

Cal State officials say that the additional requirement, which could be met through taking a math course, a laboratory science course, or a math-heavy elective such as statistics, economics, coding, or personal finance, will cut dropout rates and increase the number of students who graduate on time. University officials also said that most of the students who enroll in CSU have already taken a fourth year of math or a "quantitative reasoning" course, and those students are more successful academically than those admitted with just three years of high school math.

But opponents to the plan—some of whom are leaders in California school districts—say such a change could shut out otherwise qualified black, Latino, and low-income students.

The Los Angeles school board adopted a resolution last year that opposed the CSU measure. It said the proposal had been drafted without consulting local districts and that funding was inadequate to support it. The proposal will "disproportionately [harm] students of color in under-resourced high schools that do not offer a fourth year of math," the resolution said.

Los Angeles requires three years of math for graduation. The 74, an education news website, found that less than a quarter of the district's seniors took a fourth math or quantitative reasoning course during the 2018-19 school year.

"At a time when over 80 percent of Black and Latinx high school graduates in California are not supported to complete the coursework necessary for admission to the CSU system, it is imperative that any changes to eligibility requirements are definitively tied to improved success and do not further limit access for students who have the most to benefit from an education at the CSU," said a statement from The Campaign for College Opportunity and Education Trust-West, organizations that advocated for further study of the increased math requirement. 

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