CUNY's got a math problem

Basic algebra stumps most first-year students at City University of New York freshmen, according to a CUNY report. 

“These results are shocking,” said City College Prof. Stanley Ocken, who co-wrote the report on CUNY kids’ skills. “They show that a disturbing proportion of New York City high school graduates lack basic skills.”

During their first math class at one of CUNY’s four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn’t solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.

Seventy percent of CUNY students were graduated from New York City public schools, where they say standards are low.

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  1. When a student make it to University, his interest will naturally focus on the subject that he wants to specialise in. A law student would not want to be concerned with Algebra. Even a banker would leave the conversion of fraction to decimal to calculator.

    We should let the Engineers and the Science students worry about Math. They are the 30% that should get the Maths right. And to be fair to these 30%, we should not ask them to study literature, economics or anything that have nothing to do with their specialization… For some countries such as Singapore, engineering students are over taught. They need to learn Principle of accounting, economics and much more.

  2. The reporter claims “Basic algebra” stumps the CUNY kids.

    But the article’s evidence is that basic *arithmetic* stumps the majority of CUNY kids.

    Unable to turn a fraction into a decimal means you can’t do division. That’s not basic algebra. It’s 4th grade math, 6th grade math at the latest.

    You cannot understand how to split the check between your friends if you can’t convert a fraction to a decimal. You certainly cannot comprehend your cel phone bill or your mortgage statement. You cannot determine your property taxes. You cannot figure out how many gallons of gas you need to buy when your tank is 1/8th full.

    Lawyers, bankers, doctors, car mechanics, gardeners, plumbers, painters, and everyone in between need 6th grade math.

  3. The question I think everyone would like to know is how in the h*ll did these individuals get admitted to college (let alone being allowed to graduate with high school diplomas)?

    I’m in agreement with allison, fractions and decimals are typically taught in grades 4 to 6, and that 1/3 of the students couldn’t do this is pathetic indeed.

    Example, your dinner check is $18.53, the sales tax is 8 percent, compute your final bill including a 15 percent tip.

    That’s basic mathematics, and without a solid knowledge of fractions, there is absolutely, positively, no way any student can succeed in higher math (algebra, geometry, alegbra II/trig, pre-calc, calculus, etc).

    You use algebra when you’re attempting to comparison shop, you use math almost every day in your life, but most people do not realize this at all.

    When a builder need to estimate material costs based on known or unknown factors, he or she needs to use algebra. When a recipe says serves 4, how do you expand the recipe to serve a total of say 18 people (that’s algebra, and recipes make HEAVY use of fractions).

    God help the generations to come in this once great nation…

  4. Ben – people at university often change their area of focus. I did an engineering degree and then an economics degree. I think the goal of schools should be to open as many doors as possible for as many of their students as possible, which leads me to believe in teaching as many students as possible as much mathematics as possible, so if some 18 year old finds themselves getting more interested in maths than in the English they enjoyed at high school they can change as freely as a would-be mathematician who finds themslves moving the other way.

    Furthermore, economics has a lot to do with engineering.

    As for law students, laws often involve mathematics as they often involve money, for example funding formuale for school districts, allocations of new property rights, incidence of taxes, probabilities of an event occurring by chance (relevant for criminal law).

    A banker might normally leave the conversion of a fraction to a decimal to a calculator, but if they can’t do it approximately in their head they are hampered in checking that they have set up the right calculation.

  5. Student of History says:


    I once put an algebraic equation in a compensation contract to describe how the physician who was being paid a percentage of billables during the term of the contract for his services would deal with rights to accounts receivable that came in after the termination of the contract. It sounds nerdy but it worked.

    Algebra can be a great way for lawyers to remove ambiguity from a contract because you can illustrate unknown precise amounts in a way that shows the intent of the parties at the time they reached agreement on how compensation is to be calculated.

    Of course the litigators hate it when ambiguity is removed from a contract. It’s bad for their business model.


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