SALT LAKE CITY — Most of Utah's high school graduates are not prepared for college math courses and, students who take a single remedial course in college are not likely to complete their degree.
Those statements, backed up by ACT benchmark data and national statistics, were among the points made Tuesday by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, during a meeting of the Education Task Force.
"Math is the burial ground for higher (education) aspirations," Urquhart said. "It's true nationwide, and it's especially true in this state."
Urquhart said he would like to see a program of incentives created to encourage high school students to complete a math 1050 credit through concurrent enrollment prior to graduation.
Math education is creating a stumbling block for too many Utahns, he said, and ultimately contributing to the low number of students successfully earning their degrees.
Urquhart's remarks were met with agreement from members of the task force, including Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, who asked why the state doesn't require more math instruction given its nature as an impediment to higher education.
"Why are we limiting ourselves to just three years of math?" Gibson asked. "Why aren’t we strongly considering a fourth year of math requirement?"
Utah students are required to take three years of math during high school, which for the average student is done by taking math 1 during their freshman year, followed by math 2 and 3 during their sophomore and junior years.
As part of the Common Core State Standards, each level blends content from multiple disciplines — such as geometry, algebra, statistics and trigonometry — and increases in difficulty each year.
Students with an aptitude for mathematics or those who elect to take a fourth year of math as a senior have the ability to earn college credit through concurrent enrollment and AP courses, depending on the school they attend.
But Urquhart said math 3 does not align with first-year college math, resulting in many students requiring remedial courses that are both costly and time-consuming. It would be better, he said, for students to be placed on a track where they would culminate with college credit.
"Why don’t we make it more of a goal to have our students graduate high school with math 1050 credit?" Urquhart said. "The thing that is tripping up our students and keeping some from graduating, we could take care of that in high school."
Urquhart said he was involved in the debates when a third year of math was required and "has the scars to prove it." He indicated his personal support for requiring four years of math but added that it would be a divisive issue for the Legislature to debate.
"Requiring a fourth year of math, I can just imagine what the fight would be there," he said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said the opposition to increased math requirements typically stems from a concern that fewer students would successfully graduate high school and students would have one less hour during the school year to take elective courses.
"It’s a topic that has been discussed many times," Menlove said. "I don’t have scars from any of those conversations, but I’m sure there are those who do."
Gibson suggested that the benefits of a high graduation rate are undercut if students are ill-prepared to advance into vocational training and higher education.
"Just to graduate people doesn’t necessarily mean we’re graduationg someone with any ability to do what they want to do," he said.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, suggested that in lieu of requiring four years of math, the state could consider a two-tiered high school diploma where students receive extra honors for being college-ready in mathematics.
"If I’m a parent in that two-tiered system, am I going to be satisfied with my child just getting a high school diploma?" he asked.
Urquhart said he was not necessarily planning to sponsor math-related bills during the upcoming legislative session. But he suggested that lawmakers keep in mind the role math proficiency plays in regards to degree attainment as they consider new legislation.
He also added that with 18-year-old men now able to serve missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is potential for a student to have a three-year gap between their junior year and college math courses. That amount of time without mathematics instruction, he said, could lead to a greater need for remediation when missionaries return to school.
"I think with the change in missionary age, our completion rates will go down even further if we don’t do something about it," Urquhart said.