Policies placing first-year college students assessed as needing remedial math directly into college-level quantitative courses, with additional support, can increase student success, according to a first-of-its-kind study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Among entering students assessed as needing remedial algebra, 56 percent of those assigned to and enrolled in college-level statistics passed, but only 39 percent of those assigned to and enrolled in elementary algebra passed. In addition, the statistics students subsequently accumulated more credits than the remedial algebra students.
"Our findings provide the first causal evidence that placing students assessed as needing remedial math courses directly in college-level courses, such as statistics, with additional support, can lead to better student outcomes," said Alexandra W. Logue, a study author and research professor at The City University of New York (CUNY).
Prior research has found that completion of math remediation may be the single largest academic barrier to increasing college graduation rates. More than 80 percent of students who are assessed as needing significant remediation in math never complete that remedial coursework. Previous research also shows that U.S. colleges assess a total of about 60 percent of their new freshmen as unprepared for college-level work, most often in math. Students assessed as needing remediation are more likely to be members of minority groups and from lower-income backgrounds.
Study authors Logue, Mari Watanabe-Rose, and Daniel Douglas -- all of CUNY -- conducted the first randomized, controlled trial to evaluate some of the varying approaches offered by colleges for students to fulfill their math requirements.
Conducted at three CUNY community colleges, the study randomly assigned 907 students entering college in the fall of 2013 -- students who had all been assessed as needing remedial math -- to one of three course types. These courses included: (1) traditional, remedial, non-credit elementary algebra; (2) the elementary algebra course with weekly workshops; (3) or college-level, credit-bearing introductory statistics with weekly workshops.
Logue and her colleagues found that students who were assigned to college-level statistics, with weekly workshops to provide additional student support, were not only more likely to pass than students assigned to remedial elementary algebra, but also more likely to pass than those in algebra with weekly workshops.
Further, the students who were randomly assigned to remedial algebra with weekly workshops were less likely to ever show up for their college classes than were the students assigned to the other two course types. These findings suggest that assigning students to lengthy remedial courses or treatments may discourage some students from attending college altogether.
The study authors also found that by the end of the third semester after enrolling, 57 percent of the students who had taken statistics had satisfied their institution's college-level general education quantitative course requirement, compared to only 16 percent of the students who had taken the non-credit remedial algebra class.
The authors also found no statistically significant relationship between student racial demographics and pass rates, suggesting that using alternatives to remedial courses can also help close race-based graduation gaps.
"Our findings indicate that each year, at CUNY alone, thousands more students would satisfy their college-level general education quantitative course requirement if they were placed in college-level introductory statistics, with additional support, rather than remedial algebra," said Logue. "Our results show that students do not need to first pass remedial elementary algebra to subsequently pass college-level statistics and to make progress in college."
"This approach would remove the largest academic barrier preventing students from graduating college in the United States," Logue said. "It would be a significant step toward boosting college graduation rates, particularly among under-represented, at-risk groups who are most likely to be placed in remedial courses."
Logue also noted that moving away from remedial math courses would save American taxpayers millions of dollars on classes that are largely unsuccessful for students.
Prior research has suggested several reasons why students assessed as needing remedial courses might perform better in college-level courses such as statistics. For example: (1) some students may be assessed inaccurately as needing remediation and have the skills to perform college-level work; (2) being assigned to a remedial course may decrease a student's motivation, since remedial courses do not offer credit, often have a stigma attached, and delay a student's graduation; and (3) college-level statistics is less abstract than algebra and uses everyday examples.
Logue noted that not all math faculty, however, support the idea of students taking statistics instead of elementary algebra. Some faculty believe that every student should show evidence of knowledge of elementary algebra, regardless of his or her major, Logue said. However, other faculty are supportive of alternatives to traditional remedial courses, and Logue and Watanabe-Rose are working with some such CUNY faculty to align and streamline the quantitative course requirements at those faculty's colleges.
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