Math and Foreign Language Courses at College – What High School Students with Disabilities, Parents, and Professionals Need to Know

Math and Foreign Language Courses at College – What High School Students with Disabilities, Parents, and Professionals Need to Know

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No guarantee of a course waiver at college for students with disabilities

At some high schools, students with disabilities are not required to take courses in foreign language or math (i.e. they receive a waiver) because these classes can be very challenging for them. Too many families and professionals assume that colleges are obligated to provide students with similar accommodations because they were written into students’ high school plans; in fact, colleges are not legally required to waive any courses for students with disabilities, even when this has been done for them throughout their education. It is important for these students, their parents, and child study team members to understand that the decision to make such an accommodation should not be taken lightly, as the decision that is made can affect students down the road if they decide to attend college.

Potential effect of not taking high school math or foreign language courses on college admissions

The first time that the decision to keep students out of high school foreign language or math courses may affect them is when they apply to colleges. Families and professionals should be aware that most colleges do not have separate admission requirements for students with disabilities, and the law does not require them to do so. Colleges that require students applying for admission to have a certain number of foreign language or math courses on their transcript do not have to waive such considerations for students with disabilities, even when students’ high school did not require them to take such courses. This means that deciding to keep a student out of such courses in high school may limit his or her college choices down the road.

Not passing math or foreign language courses can mean not completing a college degree at certain schools

Before students enroll in their college of choice, they should know that if their chosen school requires them to take a certain number of math or foreign language credits in order to graduate, the law does not require the college to waive these courses for students with disabilities, even if they can’t pass these classes. This means that students run the risk of not being able to complete their degree at the school where they started college (if these courses are required for graduation from that college), and they may have to transfer to a school that does not require such courses. Boston University was challenged on its foreign language requirement in a lawsuit in the mid-1990’s (Guckenberger v. Boston University), and the university eventually prevailed when the court agreed that the school’s foreign language requirement was an integral part of its degree program and ruled that it did not have to waive it.

In situations where students’ college rules that they do not have to take courses in math or foreign language because of their disability, the school will still typically require them to take substitute credits in a related area (e.g. taking a Computer Science course instead of Calculus or Spanish History instead of Spanish 4). So as students conduct their college search, part of the research they do should involve checking universities’ math and foreign language requirements. Students who really struggle in these areas may choose to focus on schools that don’t require courses in their area of difficulty. They should be able to find this information on the Internet. If they have any questions, they should call the school directly and ask for help.

Families and professionals should know that sometimes colleges will choose to waive their own admissions requirements and allow students who have not taken the required math or foreign language courses to enroll at the school. In some of these cases, these students may still have to take some courses that had been waived in the admissions process before their college will allow them to graduate. Students who cannot pass required courses may actually have to transfer to another college that does not require these classes in order to complete their degree. So students who enroll at a college despite not having taken classes required for admission should make sure – as soon as they enroll – that they know whether or not they have to pass these pre-admissions courses (in math or foreign language) before they can graduate.

As will be discussed in a moment, these students may be better off taking math or foreign language courses in high school, where the teaching style and schedule tends to be better for students’ learning style.

Students with Disabilities Should Consider Taking Math or Foreign Language in High School

Knowing that colleges do not have to waive difficult courses for them, students can make an educated decision about how to handle such courses if they want to attend a college that requires that students earn some math or foreign language credits. In his article on foreign language accommodations, transition expert Joseph Madaus suggests that students take foreign language in high school, as this may satisfy the foreign language requirement at the college they hope to attend. By taking these courses in high school, students will benefit from the daily exposure to language and the slower pace.

From the information I have gathered in working with college students, I think families and professionals should know that foreign language is often taught at colleges through immersion (with no English spoken in class at all) by professors who are native speakers (and may therefore have strong accents). These professors may not make use of visuals such as a blackboard or whiteboard or PowerPoint slides, and colleges are not required to make professors change their teaching style to better reach students with disabilities (even though good teaching should involve the use of visual and auditory materials to benefit all students). The same can be assumed to be true for math courses at college with regard to the points about fast pace and lack of daily review. This is why following Madaus’s advice about taking challenging classes in high school may be the best way for students to take care of their math or foreign language credits.

Students with Disabilities Should Research Available Substitutions for Math or Foreign Language Requirements

Students should start by being proactive. As soon as they start college, they should meet with their advisor to find out what courses are required, and they should speak to their coordinator at Disability Services about this, too. Students should make sure to ask what classes are considered acceptable substitutes (if any are available).

When substitute courses are available, and students are found eligible for such an accommodation, they should not just jump to take one of these substitute courses, which may be as difficult or more difficult than the one they are hoping to avoid. Also, they need to make sure that they know what math or foreign language courses may be required for the major they want to pursue. For instance, if students want to major in International Relations, they may need to complete a certain number of semesters of foreign language, even if a classmate majoring in Political Science does not. Similarly, an Engineering major may be required to complete certain math courses that a Physics major may not have to take. Research is important, and students should ask for help from their academic advisors and others whose job it is to help them with this. If students’ freshman academic advisor does not know what the requirements are for students’ desired major, students should contact the department in which they’d like to study (e.g. Economics or Anthropology) and ask for someone there to help them with the details so that they can be sure they know what classes they’ll have to take.

One important point students should research is what grade they need to earn – either in the required math or foreign language course or in the substitute course – in order to earn credit toward graduation. For instance, a student who takes the required French 3 course but earns a D in the class might find that her college does not allow this class to count toward her fulfillment of graduation requirements. The same may be true in these substitute courses.

Students who are enrolled at a university that houses several colleges – such as a school of nursing or a college of basic studies for non-traditional students – should keep in mind that the requirements around foreign language and math may vary from school to school, even within the same university. They should not ask their friends about the requirements for  their school or field of study, as these may not have any relation to students’ own program’s requirements. Instead, they should make sure that they get reliable information from knowledgeable advisors and/or department chairs.

Once students know what classes are considered acceptable substitutions, they should use this list of courses as a starting point for their research. In his book Winning at Math, expert Paul Nolting suggests that students get copies of the syllabi from different sections of the same math class and speak to the professors who teach them so that they can get a sense of what skills are emphasized in the class and whether it is a good course for them based on their profile of strengths and weakness. Students should apply the same research principle to investigating these alternative courses, too. For instance, a symbolic logic course can be just as challenging as an algebra course, or a French literature class may involve so much reading and writing that it is more difficult for some students who might do better in a traditional French class where the emphasis is on conversation.

If students decide that none of the alternative courses offered at their college seem suited to them, they should ask whether their college will grant them credit if they take the required math or foreign language course at the local community college. Many students pursue this option because they find that the teaching style and pace at a community college better suits their needs. Again, students should just make sure that the class they take will get them credit at their own college and fulfill their school’s requirement.

Advice for Students with Disabilities on Handling Math or Foreign Language Courses at College

For high school students who want to attend a college that requires foreign language or math, or for students already attending a college that does this, there are some strategies they can use to make getting through their requirements more manageable.

In situations where several professors teach a section of the same course (e.g. there is often several sections of a class like Introduction to Statistics), Nolting recommends that students try to get copies of the syllabus from each professor and get to each one’s office hours to get a sense of whose course would be the best match for them. Students can also ask their advisor and their DS coordinator whether they have gotten any feedback from other students regarding professors’ teaching styles, so that they can use this information to help decide whose section might be the best match for them. Students can talk to others who have completed the courses they need to take about their experiences in these classes, and they can check professor rating websites (such as and others – some schools may have their own unofficial sites). Students should just remember that other students’ view of professors may be related to the grade they received, rather than to the quality of instruction. Students should try to focus their questions and research on teaching style and grading processes so that they can get a more objective view.

While students may think it’s a good idea to take a challenging course during a summer or winter break when they aren’t taking any other classes, Nolting advises against this. He says that these courses have to get through so much content in such a short amount of time that many students find the pace too fast. Students should take Nolting’s advice seriously, and judge for themselves whether they can handle a class at this pace if they are taking it in isolation (i.e. when they’re not taking any other classes or working), or whether the speed of such a class will not allow them to keep up.

Given Nolting’s precaution, it may be a better idea for students to schedule these challenging courses during semesters where they take a lighter course load and take classes that are less challenging for them. For instance, students who struggle with reading should take their required challenging course in a semester where their other courses don’t require so much reading.

Students with Disabilities Should Not Wait to Start Working on Their Math or Foreign Language Requirements at College

As painful as it may seem, students should get started in these required courses early in their college career. Their school will not let them graduate simply because they are seniors who have passed the other requirements but can’t complete the required foreign language or math courses. In a worst-case scenario, students may have to transfer to another college in order to complete their degree if they cannot complete their current school’s required classes. If this proves to be the case, students will want to do this as early as possible.

Some colleges will allow students to take substitute courses only after they have tried (and failed) the required course(s). This is another reason why it is important for students to take these classes early in their college years. Students risk finishing their degree after their expected graduation date if they wait until senior year to apply for a waiver or substitution and find out that they now need to take additional courses that are not available in their last semester.

If students have to take courses that are very challenging to them, they should follow the advice Nolting gives about taking math courses back-to back without a break (i.e., without a semester or year off in-between). He says that part of the way for students to be successful is to keep the information they need for math in their head, so taking classes two semesters in a row will help to prevent them from forgetting what they learned in the first math class when they take the second one. The same idea applies to foreign language, too.

Students Should Take Action on These Required Courses Now!

With their understanding that colleges can require them to take courses in foreign language or math, high school students who have serious difficulties in either of these areas should make this question part of their college research. Students already enrolled at college should take the knowledge they now have, and take the proactive steps outlined here to get themselves through their requirements. Students who are in doubt about their schools’ graduation requirements and the requirements for the degree they want to earn should ask their academic advisor for help with this. If he or she does not know the information students need, they should not give up. They should then contact the academic department head for their field of study or the school’s dean for advising or academic affairs and make sure that they know what courses they need.

For more on this topic, read Elizabeth’s book.