Multiple Choice Math: A Mismatch of Standards

Tessa Carter

In a recent blog post at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Ken Smith and Diana Nixon discuss dual enrollment programs that poorly prepare students for college-level coursework. The twofold goal of such programs is to streamline degree acquisition and cut education costs, but often there is a mismatch of academic standards between “college high school” and college itself. Dual enrollment students transitioning to college may find the coursework too challenging—or not challenging enough. 

Some students are granted college credit for high school classes that rely on multiple-choice tests and then wonder why they struggle in a junior-level college course. Smith and Nixon write:

This is a new wrinkle in the transition from high school to college. Community colleges in Texas now certify high-school teachers to be community-college teachers and then anoint their classes with college credit. This solves problems with high-school budgets and the high school/college transition. College is now high school.

Smith, a professor of mathematics at Sam Houston State University, describes a conversation with a student, a science major, who was failing precalculus for the second time. She had transferred to Sam Houston with 65 credit hours from a community college.

The student explained that my class is not compatible with her “learning method.” She said that she prefers “that multiplying method, you know, where there are letters, A, B, C.”

I said, “You mean, multiple choice?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” she said. “That’s the method where I learn best. I’m good at figuring out which letters aren’t the right ones.”

All but one of this student’s community classes had used multiple-choice. Smith later found out the student’s transferred classes had “also counted toward her junior and senior year high-school classes.” In this case, dual enrollment classes failed to reach college-level standards.

But some students experience the opposite problem. One of my good friends, a bright young woman with a quick mind, was homeschooled and participated in Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program in high school before finishing her English degree at a state university. In her experience, her PSEO classes (offered by a private college) were far more rigorous and challenging than her courses at the state university. She was more than prepared for college-level work; indeed, her transition to the university was in some ways a step down.

Another friend, a young lady with a sharp wit, would often express impatience with the work ethic and study methods of our fellow college classmates. I tried to remind her that not everyone had gone to a high school where students translated the Aeneid from the original Latin.

The snag spotlighted by Smith and Nixon has two sides. It is one problem when students come to college ill-prepared for the work and responsibility required of them; it is another when students experience an academic downgrade when they enter college. While some college-accredited high school classes do not meet collegiate standards, some college classes don’t either.

Image: Flickr/albertogp123

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