College & Dyscalculia

California Law to Increase College Completion (2019)

Assembly Bill 705, requires community colleges to maximize the likelihood that students will complete college-level Math and English within 1 year by instituting these recommendations from Complete College America

Diagnostic Testing in College

Refer an undiagnosed student with suspected learning disorders to the university testing center.  Bring the results of the Dyscalculia Checklist and the Learning Disability Checklist to the appointment and ask that all areas of concern be investigated and discussed in the report. 

Academic Adjustments 

- defined in the federal Section 504 regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 104.44(a) (2006) as:

Such modifications to the academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate or have the effect of discriminating, on the basis of [disability] against a qualified … applicant or student [with a disability].   Academic requirements that the recipient can demonstrate are essential to the instruction being pursued by such student or to any directly related licensing requirement will not be regarded as discriminatory within the meaning of this section. 

Modifications to academic requirements or academic adjustments may include:

         a) changes in the length of time permitted for the completion of degree requirements

         b) substitution of specific courses required for the completion of degree requirements

         c) adaptation of the manner in which specific courses are conducted.

         d) reduced course load

         e) extended time on tests

         f) provision of auxiliary aids and services

Auxiliary aids and services

- defined in the federal Section 504 regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 104.44(d), and in the

  Title II regulations at 28 C.F.R. § 35.104. 

         a) note-takers

         b) readers

         c) recording device

         d) sign language interpreters

         e) screen-readers     

         f) voice recognition and other adaptive software or hardware for computers and other devices designed to ensure the participation of students with impaired sensory, manual or speaking skills in an institution’s programs and activities.

Restrictions:  Institutions are not required to provide:

    - personal devices and services such as attendants

    - individually prescribed devices, such as eyeglasses

    - readers for personal use or study

    - other services of a personal nature, such as tutoring

Accommodations & Academic Adjustments

Given a dyscalculic's limitations, it is only reasonable to

(A)  Waive college algebra and all remedial and prerequisite math courses for which the dyscalculic is developmentally unprepared and academically incapable.  If the required math courses are not integral to the degree, the university may elect course waivers and substitutions. 


(B)  Substitute-  in place of college algebra and traditional "remedial or developmental" refresher math courses-  a UDL practical universal math literacy course. 

Developmentally appropriate instruction should utilize tools that minimize cognitive load and demand for rote and procedural fluency. Instruction is modular, student-paced, skill and deficit driven. with practical experiences and exercises that result in deep understanding and the student can reasonably complete in the time allotted. As students demonstrate mastery of objectives, a permanent seal is earned, which allows for course interruption and resumption. 

(C)  Authentic Assessments (AA) replace traditional cumulative, timed assessments. Students actively, dynamically, and creatively demonstrate (teach) the concepts being measured. The instructor establishes the topics, criteria, and grading rubric for the project. The student chooses how to teach or demonstrate the key concepts (e-submission, live demonstration, explainer video, illustrated guide, etc.). Focus is on key language and the who, what, when, where, why, and how. AAs are used in all instances requiring quantitative reasoning and calculation.  Extra time may be needed to accommodate slow processing and the creative process. LD students usually require additional time to progress through the curriculum. 

(D)  Training in Tools and Strategies   A dyscalculic needs training in the use of strategies and tools. If the student does not have access to training, tools, and accommodations, and is not successful with typical supports (ex. tutoring, extra time), but has demonstrated earnest effort, the instructor may grade on work attempted, time on task, persistence, and attitude. 
(E) Document Dyscalculia  The instructor should keep work samples; document attendance, supports,  interventions, and results; keep performance data (practice, assessments);  and note observations of student difficulties and characteristics. 
(F) Instructor Facilitates Accommodations  Academic adjustments for the learning-disordered student: may include (a) pass-fail grading based on effort; or (b) giving an incomplete with the option to complete course topics with modular, online courseware or with authentic project-based assessments; or (c) withdrawal without penalty;  and (d) math course waiver and substitution.

College Algebra & QR Substitutions

College Examples of Substitution of College Algebra and Remedial Math Solutions

(1)  Michigan State University Eliminates Remedial Math - 2018

(2)  Wayne State University in Detroit Eliminates Math Requirement -  Inside Higher Ed 2016

(3) Retooled Courses Help Students Avoid a Remedial-Math Roadblock to College - EdWeek 2018

(4)  Carnegie Math Pathways - Quantway 1  -  Quantway 2  -   Statway   -  Online 2020

(4)  Introduction to Mathematical Thinking by Dr. Keith Devlin, Stanford Univ. via Coursera

(5)  Learning How to Learn by Dr. Barbra Oakley, Univ. of California-San Diego via Coursera

(6)  Math Appreciation

(7)  Overview of Statistics

Waivers of Math Courses & QRRs

Most colleges do not have a course, or even a series of courses, that take a dyscalculic student through mastery of fourth-grade math content (multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, etc.), all the way through college algebra. Even if a series of comprehensive review courses exist, the college lacks instructors and tutors, trained in dyscalculia and the specific strategies and methods needed to successfully teach the disabled learner.

It is unethical to force students to take a series of remedial courses, for which they are developmentally unprepared. Repeated failure results in student debt, GPA devastation, scheduling ineligibility, barriers to academic progress in the course of study, and puts financial aid, academic standing, scholarship and job eligibility in jeopardy. It is also frustrating, depressing, and demoralizing, and can lead to health problems and drop-out.It is unethical to require College Algebra for graduation for a math learning-disabled student.

It is unreasonable to expect that a college can remediate a disabled student's significant math deficiencies in a fast-paced, large-class, independent-learner format, given failure of 12 years of daily, slow-paced, small-group, circular, supported instruction by certified teachers. 

Remedial Students Have Poor Graduation Rates 

80% of remedial math students, fail to pass college math within 3 years  (Community College Research Center, Columbia University, 2010)

Unfortunately, the fast pace,  large lecture format, and labs with peer support, are rarely sufficient to close the skill gap. The dyscalculic is forced to repeat the remedial courses in the hopes of moving forward, but ends up running into trouble when repeated failure devastates the GPA and results in inadequate academic progress, academic probation, and ineligibility for financial aid and scholarships. Payment for remedial courses also uses up limited financial resources, and results in significant debt accumulation when student loans are used. 

Dyscalculia or math learning disability/disorder will prevent you from meeting minimum quantitative reasoning requirements at the college level.  For liberal arts majors, this usually means passing a class in College Algebra or Finite Math. Because a dyscalculic student will test into remedial math classes on placement exams, they will be directed to non-college-level refresher courses, like Math 085, Elementary Math Concepts; and Math 095, Pre-Algebra and Elementary Algebra.  

The math skills of most adults with dyscalculia are arrested at the 4th grade level;  but even when testing at 4th grade, almost all will demonstrate deficient first, second, and third grade skills.  At grades 1 through 4, the adult usually knows what to do, but gets problems wrong because of "careless errors."  The dyscalculic is not being careless, however, because the dyscalculic has no awareness of their processing problems.  These processing errors affect visual-spatial input, auditory input, and touch input. 

Like with color blindness and the inability to see or perceive specific color differences, the dyscalculic sees fine, but the brain does not process quantitative information accurately.  This results in baffling, frustrating difficulties.  A dyscalculic may not be able to add a column of numbers and get the same answer twice because the mind changes the numbers, unbeknownst to the dyscalculic. 

The dyscalculic may not process auditory quantitative information accurately, and may not even process tactile quantitative information accurately. Some dyscalculics have difficulty discriminating the difference in size between coins and other objects, and have difficulty comparing groups of items to determine which contains more or less. 

The processing glitches present as output errors in counting,  decimal point and number alignment, lack of place value awareness, faulty recall of math facts, mixed up and missing signs and numbers, directional confusion during operations, inappropriate preservation of ideas, random number insertions, and abandoned processes. 

During processing, working memory is slow and insufficient, the mind switches inputs, acts on erroneous information, omits important information, loses track of operations, confuses sequences, is ambiguous about patterns and the association of meaning to symbols, and blanks out.  

The result is a student who is consumed with frustration, anger, and anxiety over the consequences of their inability to perform as expected. An anxiety or panic attack may ensue.  After extended traumatic experience with math, the dyscalculic will hate it, avoid it, and may experience an anxiety response at the thought of having to perform. 

Because the dyscalculic student can usually perform adequately in all areas except mathematics, they are prone to disgust and disbelief at their mysterious inability to demonstrate math competence. They will attempt to succeed through heroic persistence and determination. After all, they usually excel at reading, writing, and speaking, and most learning tasks come easily.  While a positive attitude, diligence, and investment of inordinate time got them mercy grades through elementary and high school math, it rarely works in college. The dyscalculic is stonewalled  because professors cannot give grades for effort, and must grade solely on independent, summative exam performance.  

See Complete College America's report on dismal college completion rates for students who test into remedial classes. 

Remediation, Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere (2012).

What can be done?

Facts to share with Disabled Student Services Office

Developmental Dyscalculia (Specific Learning Disability in Mathematics, or Mathematics Learning Disorder) Diagnostic code: 315.1


A comprehensive assessment includes  a complete educational history, standardized intelligence and academic achievement tests, personal interviews, and a psychological battery. 

A Student meets the criteria for a diagnosis of dyscalculia, AKA specific learning disability in mathematics, when: 

(a) Student consistently performs well  average or above average on reading and writing tasks, and well below average on math tasks, and 

(b) deficits are specific to sequential math memory, math working memory, math fact recall, mathematical reasoning and problem solving, math calculation, and general storage and fluent retrieval of practiced math skills; slow and insufficient working memory; and 

(C) deficits are not due to inattention, illness, insufficient interest or motivation, anxiety, educational gaps, poor instruction, poor study skills, socio-economic circumstances, or other environmental causes.


Research has proven developmental dyscalculia results from cortical abnormalities in regional neural organization in the left angular gyrus, particularly a reduction in grey matter in the left intraparietal sulcus; whereas acquired dyscalculia results from brain damage (stroke, injury, etc.)


Student cannot overcome these cognitive impairments with typical approaches like tutoring and studying harder, alone, as these cannot lead to permanent math learning, math memory, and math facility. 

While the MLD student may be capable of executing guided practice, and demonstrating mastery through extended exercises;  the dyscalculic is incapable of consistent retention of math material in long-term memory, and must relearn the concepts at each attempt.

The dyscalculic can learn of the nature of their mental glitches and the errors that result.  They can utilize tools and strategies to minimize the impact of these cognitive inefficiencies and mistakes of speech, reading, writing and demonstrating quantitative ideas. They cannot, however, eliminate the condition entirely, or control the natural stress response that occurs when diligent effort does not result in success.

ALEKS course progress pie


The ALEKS program used by the University of Wisconsin-Madison for distance education and independent learning, attempts to use AI to assess student mastery and to only present new concepts when a student has the prerequisite skills. It is modular, and uses visual feedback to track progress and motivate students.

 ALEKS Higher Ed Success Stories

ALEX Frustration: Students with dyscalculia experience frustration when periodic cumulative testing resets their progress because they have forgotten "learned" concepts. For example, a student may have mastered 100% of the content on fractions.The student may miss some questions on fractions on a random pop-quiz covering mastered material. Students become discouraged when their colored pie slice for fractions, now indicates 80% instead of 100%. The student must relearn the forgotten concepts. 

Dyscalculics are daunted, frustrated, and aggravated by frequent forgetting of learned facts and procedures, inconsistent recall, impaired math reasoning, visual-spatial-sequential confusion, and occassional number mixups when reading, thinking, and writing. 

Dyscalculic learners experience frustration in ALEKS when once-mastered concepts (indicated by progress on the pie chart) is lost on assessments that spiral back on learned concepts. Students lose momentum and confidence when their progress indicators reset and show that they must relearn once mastered material.