I can’t pass algebra

Javier Cabral wants to study the humanities at a university, but he can’t pass algebra. After failing algebra in high school, he failed seven times in 4 1/2 years at a community college before dropping out. Diagnosis with a math disability got him more time on tests, but that didn’t help. Should algebra-less students be barred from pursuing a university degree?

About Joanne


  1. The link doesn’t work.

  2. I do understand the heartbreak he must be feeling; it has to be devastating to have tried and failed so many times.

    HOWEVER, and I must acknowledge that I don’t know his specific situation, to invent a form of mathematics does take a special genius, but virtually anyone capable of graduating high school can pass Algebra. No special genius needed.

    What I found, when I attended a community college years ago, is that it’s not uncommon for students who fail repeatedly to follow the same pattern:

    - show up the first day, say “this is easy”, and thereafter slack off the work – not read the text, do ALL the problems, and review their notes. It DOES seem easy – this is the early part, that they may have encountered multiple times.
    - Although a math tutoring lab will be mentioned, and strongly urged, the student won’t go there, just yet – it’s all easy, doncha know?
    - Will miss at least 1 class over the next week (or, at least, be QUITE late for it)
    - Homework is optional in most colleges – suggested, but not graded. He won’t do it.
    - 1st quiz comes back – low grade. “NOBODY could do well on this! It wasn’t fair!”
    - Thinks about going to the math tutoring – decides to leave it until the day before the first test.
    - 1st test is terrible. “That teacher can’t teach!”
    - Starts skipping classes more often. In a panic before the midterm, shows up – once – at tutoring. Leaves early.
    - Midterm – bombs it.
    - Either drops the class, or doesn’t officially drop, but stops going to class.
    - Failure, once again.

    I’ve seen MANY students follow this pattern. Often, they lack basic understanding of math concepts they should have mastered in elementary school. Understanding of fractions and decimals is VERY shaky.

    They didn’t fail Algebra – they failed earlier math courses, but the teacher didn’t have the guts to mark them fairly. Can’t have too many Fs on the record, it’s bad for their job.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “After failing algebra in high school, he failed seven times in 4 1/2 years at a community college before dropping out.”


      My guess is the same as yours … he was failing algebra because he didn’t know the arithmetic that algebra assumes. And he didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t/whatever back up to learn fractions/decimals/times-tables/whatever, but instead kept taking (and failing) the Algebra class that he wasn’t ready for.



    • Mark Roulo says:

      Damnit … yes.


      “I’ve never passed algebra. In high school pre-algebra, I weaseled my way to a C by teaching my teacher how to play ‘Angel Baby’ on the acoustic guitar.


      Geometry came next, and I passed with no trouble. In my senior year, my problem with algebra was shared by many other students and posed a threat to the record of my ‘California Distinguished’ high school. So the administrators decided to count Accounting 1 as an algebra equivalent. I passed that with a B+.”

      From the Sacramento Bee article

    • I don’t have any sympathy for this person. He never mentioned any tutoring or late night studying or staying after class to ask questions.
      I have tutored students in math at my middle school even though I don’t teach math. The ones that fail their math class or say that it’s hard are the ones that I never see show up to tutoring or do their homework.

    • LindaF, have you been sitting in one of my classes ;) ?

  3. Mark Roulo says:

    “Should algebra-less students be barred from pursuing a university degree?”


    It depends on what we want a high school diploma to mean and what we want a college degree to mean.


    If he knew math reasonably well, but couldn’t write a grammatical sentence (or paragraph), should he be barred from pursuing a university degree? Again, what do we want a high school diploma (or a university degree) to mean?

    • “What do we want a high school diploma (or a university degree) to mean?”

      Word. Unfortunately, after the “college for all” crowd are finished, a bachelor’s degree will have the same value as a high school diploma – for all intents and purposes, laughably worthless.

  4. Mark Roulo says:
  5. Algebra is about reasoning, breaking a big problem into small steps, and working methodically. If you can’t pass Algebra, you can’t pass college either. If you can’t pass Algebra in 4 tries, then….. don’t waste money on college.

    • That’s almost exactly what I was going to say.

      Also, “studying humanities” should be much more than just taking in and regurgitating a bunch of words.  It must involve knowledge of facts and being able to determine what the facts show and do not show… including quantitative conclusions.

      If someone cannot do algebra, they can’t work with numeric facts at a college level either.  No degree.  Better yet, no admission.  Go back to adult ed.

      • Roger Sweeny says:


        You do realize that if getting a college degree required “knowledge of facts and being able to determine what the facts show and do not show…including quantitative conclusions,” only a small proportion of the population would ever get a college diploma. Depending on how rigorous you want to be, it could be less than 10%.

  6. Roger Sweeny says:

    If a person can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division with whole numbers, fractions, and decimals; if a person can calculate the final price where there is a percentage off sale and a percentage sales tax; if a person can calculate how much interest she is paying in a year for various interest rates and spending and payment patterns–then, no, she should not be barred from pursuing a university degree. However, if she cannot, I think she should be barred.

    Moreover, I think she should really have to demonstrate proficiency. No bs like having her practice the same problem over and over but with different numbers, then take a test with that same problem and yet another set of numbers.

    • Roger- If a person can do all that, she should be able to handle Algebra too.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        That’s what I would have said before I actually taught non-Honors ninth graders. For many kids, it really does seem to be true, “I understood math when it was about numbers. I don’t understand it when it’s about letters.” For you and me (and most people who read this blog), that’s just a small step into abstraction. For a lot of kids, it’s a leap over a chasm. Many don’t make it. I don’t think we should require them to attempt the jump.

        • But if they can’t handle abstraction, how can they handle a 4 year college degree?

          • Mark Roulo says:

            How much abstraction does a degree in General Studies require?

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            I have a BFA in design. My math requirements were minimal. I don’t recall the specific course I took to complete my math requirement, but it was nothing more than basic algebra and a little geometry. My local CC offers a course that satisfies the math req. called math for the liberal arts major which is a watered-down version of their college algebra (110) course.

            All this to say, LA majors haven’t been and aren’t doing particularly rigorous math, nothing beyond algebra II.

            I doubt that an individual who isn’t able to pass a community college algebra course is capable of the other course work.

    • Roger,

      The skills you just mentioned actually qualify as middle school math skills, and as we’ve both encountered on here, algebra is not a college level subject, period.

      Math courses which are college level include:

      finite math
      digital and or symbolic logic
      economics (w/applied stats (usually a sophomore course)
      linear algebra/abstract algebra
      differential eqns
      numerical analysis


      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Bill, come one. Most LA majors never take any of those courses. Most education majors, except those also seeking a math or science degree, never take them. You have an unrealistic idea of what actual college students complete.

        • Stacy,

          My point exactly. When I started at the local univ. back in 1981, business majors were required to take and pass business calculus and applied stats.

          These days, I have absolutely no idea what a decent business college requires as part of a math background, though my brother who graduated from the U.C. system in California with a degree in Business Administration did have to take and pass calculus.

          I guess we’ve gone from higher standards in our colleges from a quarter century ago to students who graduate and have problems actually preparing a resume (60 percent of the resumes I’ve reviewed in my career never make it due to spelling and/or
          grammatical errors), and these are individuals who have somehow managed to graduate from college?


          • that should have been ‘california’ instead of ‘calorie’ :)

          • My youngest is 6 years past graduation from a large, flagship state university (not in CA) with a strong business school. She probably did take business stats and she used her AP calc to meet the calc requirement (and coached her pre-med roomie through calc). All students in the B school, regardless of major, had to pass the freshman accounting and finance courses with at least a C. I doubt that someone who couldn’t pass algebra I (in 7 tries!) could meet that requirement.

          • I am teaching biz calc this summer term, and the subject is clearly a stretch for the average student. Most of the current crop evidently have pathetic algebra skills, because when I go over homework problems in class, more often than not it’s relatively simple algebra that trips them up. As for the calculus itself, they seem to have a hazy grasp of what’s going on, which means that if you take a problem similar to one given in class as an example, most don’t see the analogy and have trouble relating it to the type we just did.

            Next week we are covering integration by parts, and I’m really not looking forward to that. u-substitution was bad enough…

          • Roger Sweeny says:


            I’ll bet by the end of the term, a substantial number of them will have gotten enough practice, and crammed enough in the days before the final, that they will be able to pass the course. Everyone will then characterize them as having learned business calculus, even though few of them will remember enough to pass that final a month later.

            That’s probably what happened with their business calculus prerequisites. How else can you come to calculus with “pathetic algebra skills”?

  7. Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens says:

    I never passed Algebra in high school, and struggled (seriously cried when doing homework) struggled to get through it at Community College. However, I do believe that Algebra teaches valuable and important analytical skills in the same way that studying Literature, Philosophy, Art or Social Science adds to a students critical engagement toolbox. All that being said, when I transfered out of CC I had the privilege of attending a small private Liberal Arts school. There I was required to take a bottom level math course, that was essentially all the math that would be on the GRE. Once I was placed in a super small class, with TWO dedicated teaching assistents I did really well. As a result, I ended up doing sophisticated quantitative analysis for my senior thesis. So, ultimately, if the goal is a Liberal Arts or General Studies degree than basic Algebra skills need to be a requirement. They are a part of the Liberal Arts package of learning many different ways to analyze content, engage material, communicate effectively, and arrive into the work force with an array of skills. I think a better question would be, should math requirements act as a barrier to completing all associate degree programs.

    • Fionnula,

      I have a pair of applied science degrees in computer and network technology and computer information technology (2002/2008), also have a bachelor’s in comp. sci.

      That being said, any STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math) field is going to require math beyond algebra, and in most programs which are Limited Entry Programs (esp. health sciences), you won’t get admitted to the major/degree program without solid knowledge of algebra.

      I know that not everyone needs to use math in their jobs every day, but math teaches problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis skills, which many employers these days are finding difficultly in finding qualified employees.

  8. Foobarista says:

    My wife’s sister, who’s become a rockstar academic in China, ended up going to a second-tier Chinese college because she absolutely sucked at math. She majored in (Chinese) literature, aced all her courses, got into a good PhD program, and is now a top academic in her field. She came to the US as a Fullbright scholar a few years ago.

    One irony is because Chinese colleges don’t do “breadth requirements”, as a literature major she took no math or science after high school, so she got better college grades than she would have gotten in an American college.

    • I don’t think that colleges in the UK have distribution requirements, either – and they are three years, not four. I knew a graduate of a Scottish university – I think St Andrews – with a stats major and she said she had taken nothing outside of the stats/math area. She worked – both in Scotland and here – as a statistician.

      • I forgot to add that Smith College requires no math, science or stats for humanities majors – a relative went there for that reason. I’m sure it’s far from the only college like that.

    • And this raises the question of what it makes sense to offer, educationally, to students who have either one outstanding academic skill, or one major academic failing. These people are not rare. Not talking about middle-of-the-road students with a big failing, but real standouts with a big failing. People who excel at math but can’t learn a foreign language. People who can write fabulous code but not a paragraph in English. People who can analyze (or write) great literature but are baffled by (in this example) Algebra 1 or 2.

      • People who can analyze (or write) great literature but are baffled by (in this example) Algebra 1 or 2.

        Nobody requires a degree to go into writing, you just write.  This is about the requirements for a credential.

        • Esxcept that:

          1) since a BA is a requirement for pretty much all jobs that are not totally routine, there has to be a way for those who can’t do much math to qualify for them. Note: it used to be required for college grads to have some fluency in a foreign language (also the mark of an educated person) but that time is long gone. A few stumbles through basic vocab and grammar are all it takes today, if even this is required.

          2) while this language-talented person is writing, s/he needs a day job; therefore, needs a BA.

          3) there are many, many jobs that require an education but do not require math. They can be found in marketing, advertising, journalism, grant writing, program development, business communications, etc. I have held many such jobs.

          • There was a time when anyone graduating from high school had the equivalent of a modern AA, if not a BA.  I presume that included basic algebra.  What’s the excuse for dumbing down the entry requirements?

          • The excuse for dumbing down the entry requirements is credential inflation. You now need a BA to get jobs that used to require a high school diploma. We may not like it, but it’s the current situation.

          • EB: You do realize you’re saying the proper response to ‘credential inflation’ is more credential inflation, right?

          • AndyO: what do you suggest?

          • Overturn Griggs v. Duke Power. Credential inflation is occuring (primarily) due to employers’ lack of options for evaluating potential employees. Even if we can’t fill in the hole, at the very least we should stop digging.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Griggs was interpreting a law, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress can change the law any time it wants.

            Contact your Senators and Representative. Make it an issue in the next election.

  9. In the case where students who don’t want to take a particular subject in college, perhaps they need to go to a school where they’ll excel in what they really want to do (e.g. – Julliard, etc).

    That being said, a student who couldn’t handle algebra when I attended college back in 1981, wouldn’t last more than a semester or two, and there is no shame in this.

    I’d much rather have a student doing something else, rather than piling up a ton of debt going to college and realizing they’ll never earn the degree that they are chasing.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      “I’d much rather have a student doing something else, rather than piling up a ton of debt going to college and realizing they’ll never earn the degree that they are chasing.”


      I think Javier would like a system where he could go to college and get a degree in one of the humanities, and NOT flunk out (with or without debt) because of the math requirement.

      • I’m still skeptical that someone who couldn’t pass Algebra in 5 tries has the study skills and focus necessary to succeed in the humanities….

        • That’s the way it should be but there are lots of really soft courses that demand little, if all you want is a degree in “something”. If the purpose is just to get that credential (often useful for government jobs at any level), that’s OK. If he really wants serious humanities, then I agree with you.

          • But in the current economy, is a “general studies” degree from a mediocre school going to result in a decent job? It seems more like a path to a useless piece of paper and a lifetime of debt.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “But in the current economy, is a ‘general studies’ degree from a mediocre school going to result in a decent job? It seems more like a path to a useless piece of paper and a lifetime of debt.”


            I suspect that Javier’s plan was to transfer from his CC to a local Cal State. This would keep the debt level down.


            The paper isn’t useless because some employers still care. My wife, for example, was going to school at nights while working. She eventually hit a ceiling with her employer where they were very clear with her: No degree, no raises. With a degree, she could make more money FOR DOING EXACTLY THE SAME JOB. So she quit, went back to work full-time to finish the degree and then found a new job (folks now willing to interview her because she had a piece of paper …). Her salary doubled in the next 2-3 years. Her skill set didn’t change much at all. And she is quite clear that the classes she took had NOTHING to do with her job. And the school (a fairly weak Cal State) name wasn’t of much value, either (Harvard would be … obviously). It was the piece of paper.


            Perhaps things are different today, but my guess is that the credential is MORE important than it was back then. This is sad.

          • momof4,

            This is exactly why the college degree is now the new high school diploma, due to the fact that employers used to be able to get qualified employees out of high schools, and with some OJT, they could be

            Of course, Griggs vs. Duke Power didn’t help matters either, and plenty of H.R. departments use the degree
            issue as a basic minimum, or degree plus experience,
            or experience (though in my case, almost 31 years in
            my field allows me to run circles around any newly minted degree holder).

            It’s like the high school students whining they can’t get
            a diploma due to failing the exit exams, and in my
            opinion, students need to understand the consequences of failure earlier in their academic

  10. A university degree should demonstrate *some* level of knowledge of what used to be known as a broad, liberal education. A person who cannot do basic algebra probably shouldn’t get a university degree–there are plenty of other degree-granting institutions, especially in the fine arts, where no such knowledge is required or assumed.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I don’t think there actually are many fine arts degree-granting institutions. Those that exist, say the Hart Conservatory, tend to have special admission requirements. You have to demonstrate high-level talent to get in.

      I suppose community colleges don’t require algebra for a degree.

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “I suppose community colleges don’t require algebra for a degree.”

        In California, they sort of do. You must pass something called the Intermediate Algebra Competency Exam. Example problems here: http://www.santarosa.edu/app/placement/pdf/ACE_Study_Guide.pdf

      • Roger,

        When I went back and got a pair of applied associate degrees in computer information technology and computers with an emphasis in internetwork technology (think networking administration), the math requirement was at least proficiency in algebra, and they actually preferred students take and pass pre-calc or higher.

        Fortunately, from my previous degree experience, I had already been through calc I/II and god knows what else, so they just accepted that, now that was 20 years ago, but I can still do some basic calculus these days.

        There was a post on the blog about a week or so ago where a given employer refused to employ students who went to a for profit school, due to the fact that one student managed to get a bachelor’s in accounting (which isn’t easy at all, traditionally), but the employer found that the student didn’t know anything at all about accounting, despite having a bachelor’s in it, and she was halfway through a master’s degree in accounting.

        Go figure

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        There are tons of schools granting BFA’s, many of them state schools.



  11. Don Pettengill says:

    This notion that future Steinbecks have to study Algebra, and future Einsteins have to study poetry, is completely insane. Intellectual development arises from depth of study. And young people in their prime learning years should, if they so desire, be free to persue their passion with ferocity and committment. Parking their rear ends in classes of no interest or relevance is a monumental waste of time and talent, benefitting only the educrats who need warm tuition-paying bodies.

    • The societal dangers of an influential but innumerate Steinbeck are far greater than a half-literate Einstein.

      • Exactly; just look at our elected officials. Lack of understanding of logic,and of statistical/mathematical realities has serious consequences. Of course, so does a lack of common sense and there’s a lot of that on view, also.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          “Lack of understanding of logic,and of statistical/mathematical realities has serious consequences.”


          Not for them. It is kind to assume that, as an example, the underfunded pensions for state/city employees was simply a failure to understand math. This makes the public officials that negotiated these deals simply ignorant. I find it just as likely that (a) they knew there would be a problem down the road, but that they could get re-elected NOW with a bad plan [and wouldn't be in office when the problems showed up], or (b) didn’t actually know this, but didn’t care either because doing the stupid thing got them re-elected NOW.


          For the most part, I expect that the folks that made these deals 10-20+ years ago are long since gone, so THEY didn’t suffer any consequences from these choices. What bad thing is happening to the folks who were running Detroit 20 years ago? None that I can see (other than going to jail for criminal activity … but running the city into the ground isn’t inherently criminal).


          In short, I don’t think better logic/math/statistics/accounting education for our public officials would have prevented these sorts of disasters. The problem wasn’t a lack of knowledge. The problem was that they win by screwing up the long term.

          • Don’t lay the entire blame on the elected officials – the populace bears some responsibility. We want our bread and circus NOW darn it!

            Underfunded public pension – so, we’ll just change the discount rate to make it go away. There’s nothing wrong with 12% annual growth forever right?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I’m not sure how much they understood. I’m guessing they are a lot like the people today who assume that a person has learned what is in a course if the person have passed it. Deep down just about everyone knows that is not true–most students have forgotten most of a course within a few months–but it is just so easy to accept it, especially when most everyone around you accepts it, too.

            People who said these underfunded pensions were pushing big trouble into the future are like people who say not a lot of the curriculum is actually learned in schools. They are tiresome and annoying, and generally not listened to.

          • Roger: You’re channeling Heinlein right?

            A fake fortune teller can be tolerated. But an authentic soothsayer should be shot on sight. Cassandra did not get half the kicking around she deserved…

            Nobody wants to hear the news and will probably shoot you on site!

  12. Tom West says:

    As a STEM major, I think an argument can be made for mandatory near-fluency in a second language before a university degree is granted.

    Yes, most people won’t use on a daily basis, but lots of people don’t use their math, either. A second language expands the mind, provides additional insights into world affairs, gives us access to a huge part of the world’s media that is otherwise locked to us, makes us better citizens, etc.

    And there’s no excuse for anyone not to be able to master it with a few hundred hours of serious studying.

    Oh, and I wouldn’t have gotten a degree.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      If “expands the mind, provides additional insights into world affairs, gives us access to a huge part of the world’s media that is otherwise locked to us, makes us better citizens” is the goal, then skip the intermediate steps and just require one year of classes abroad in a non-majority-English-language country.

      • Tom West says:

        require one year of classes abroad in a non-majority-English-language country.

        Even better!

        My point is that there are lots of things that are undeniably good that we don’t require to get a degree. Why should math be the exception?

        • Mark Roulo says:

          Which gets back to one of my earlier comments on this: “It depends on what we want a high school diploma to mean and what we want a college degree to mean.”


          We can drop math through algebra or a bit more as a college degree requirement (assuming one is going for a humanities degree). And we can drop literacy as a college degree requirement (assuming that one is going for some sort of mathy degree … although I don’t think this works …). It all depends on what we want the college degree to mean.


          Right now it means some sort of very low baseline set of skills, a baseline IQ, and a certain amount of persistence. The levels depend on the college … Harvard grads, on average, have more skills and IQ than directional-state-U grads. On average.


          We can *LOWER* the current minimum levels (much like a high school degree today means something different than one from 100 years ago). But then the degree means something different.

        • there are lots of things that are undeniably good that we don’t require to get a degree. Why should math be the exception?

          Because math is a foundational capability for so many other things that the “well-rounded student” the universities claim to want to produce, and learning it costs nothing but the student’s time; a great many learn algebra in middle school.

          • Tom West says:

            > Because math is a foundational capability for
            > so many other things that the “well-rounded
            > student” the universities claim to want to
            > produce, and learning it costs nothing but
            > the student’s time; a great many learn
            > algebra in middle school.

            *Exactly* the same argument can be made for a second language.

          • Mark Roulo says:

            “*Exactly* the same argument can be made for a second language.”


            And the folks running American high schools and colleges 100 years ago took that view. Then we started trying to get more than a few percent of kids through.


            There is a pretty good quote by Robert Heinlein on this:

            The three-legged stool of understanding is held up by history, languages, and mathematics. Equipped with these three you can learn anything you want to learn. But if you lack any one of them you are just another ignorant peasant with dung on your boots. — Robert A. Heinlein

          • *Exactly* the same argument can be made for a second language.

            It’s not difficult to learn second (third, etc.) languages if you start young enough.  The problem is when such learning is required, but only offered starting in HS.

  13. Tom West says:

    While it might not be difficult, would you agree that engineers that could not master a second language sufficiently should be barred from obtaining their degree?

    It would have cost me my degree and probably dropped my income from the 90th percentile to the 50th. (Those CS credentials were important at the start.)

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Absolutely not. A second language is hardly necessary to be a good engineer, a good thinker, or a good citizen.

      And, as Engineer-Poet suggests, many people find it damn difficult to master one if they haven’t had a significant immersion before high school.

      People already have too many unnecessary educational hoops to jump through.