LearningWorks Report on Community College Math Remediation Strategies

On October 14, LearningWorks released a report titled Changing Equations: How Community Colleges are Rethinking College Readiness in Math. The report reveals that remediation, particularly placement in developmental math courses, poses one of the greatest barriers to college completion. The report also highlights four key insights driving recent remediation reform efforts: 

  • Math is a hurdle for the majority of community college students. Roughly 60 percent of community college students are placed in a developmental math course.
  • Most students deemed “unready” in math will never graduate. Only 20 percent of students placed into developmental math complete a required “gatekeeper,” or college-level introductory course in math.
  • The tests used to determine readiness are not terribly accurate: As many as one-fifth of students placed into remedial courses could have earned a B or better in a college-level course without first taking the remedial class.
  • The math sequence required by most colleges is irrelevant for many students’ career aspirations. Roughly 70 percent or more of people with bachelor’s degrees do not require intermediate algebra in their careers.

These issues, when combined with high community college enrollment and low completion rates, highlight an area of higher education reform with the potential for a large, meaningful impact on college success and workforce readiness. The report identifies recent trends in remediation, particularly efforts to strengthen student achievement in California community colleges. Through organizing and categorizing remediation reform at the postsecondary level, the report identifies three columns of what it describes as a Math Readiness Reform Menu. The following reform efforts are being pursued by colleges to address the issues of remediation: 

  • Instructional reforms: Modifications to instruction or course sequences within the standard curriculum. Examples include compressed courses, modularized courses, contextualized courses, and non-academic supports which help guide students through the material.
  • Placement reforms: Modifications to placement exams or placement policies.
  • Pathways reforms: Modifications to standard curricular sequences that tailor requirements to students’ fields of study. Examples include unique English or math course sequences which match a particular academic concentration, such as the humanities or sciences.

While many institutions across the country have implemented one or a combination of the reforms captured by the Math Readiness Reform Menu, the report emphasized the promise of pathways reforms. Given the low percentage of degree holders that require intermediate algebra in their careers, community colleges have turned away from mandatory intermediate algebra for all students, and instead, have suggested new pathways for students who do not wish to pursue science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) concentrations. Such pathways stress the development and mastery of skills related to statistics and quantitative reasoning, which are more likely to be utilized in their future careers.

Early results from programs utilizing pathways reform strategies suggest that providing a more personalized math curriculum that takes into account career aspirations produces positive results, including a 45 percentage point increase (from 6 percent to 51 percent) in the proportion of students completing college-level math in their first year through the Statistics Pathway (Statway) program. While further study is necessary, the report claims that if pathways reforms are shown to produce continued, meaningful results on student outcomes, a national conversation regarding the re-structuring of math programs may be needed to maximize students’ enrollment and completion.

Austin Pate is a research/policy assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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