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Study casts doubt on value of remedial math for college

A college student uses a calculator during class. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

Colleges routinely force students with weak math skills to take remedial classes before enrolling in one that yields credit, a requirement that poses one of the biggest hurdles for disadvantaged Americans on the path to getting a degree. Many placed in remediation get disheartened or sidetracked and end up dropping out of college before they ever really start.

New research suggests these students might fare better if they simply start in a college-level course and are given extra help on the side.

Remedial classes have become a hidden cost of college

A study released Thursday compared the effectiveness of three tracks offered to about 900 entering community college students in the City University of New York system who needed remedial math. Participants in the experiment were randomly assigned: one group to a remedial algebra course that did not yield credit; another to the same remedial course with weekly workshops to provide extra help; a third to a college-level statistics course with the workshops.

Results for the third group surpassed those for the two that were in remedial courses, the researchers reported. Fifty-six percent passed the statistics class, 45 percent passed the remedial algebra with extra help, and 39 percent passed the remedial class without the extra help.

“We really didn’t know how well those statistics students were going to do,” said Alexandra W. Logue, a research professor at the Graduate Center of CUNY who led the study. “We were pleasantly surprised.”

Logue, a former provost of the public CUNY system, said the results underscore that there are workable alternatives to remediation that could help in the national drive to raise college completion rates.

“Math remediation is the single largest academic block to college graduation in the United States,” Logue said. “We definitely feel we have found a solution. It’s not the only solution.”

Are remedial courses actually hurting community college students?

The workshops were inexpensive efforts, Logue said. They involved two hours a week of math instruction from advanced undergraduates who were trained and supervised by faculty.

The CUNY study was published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association. Logue’s co-authors were Mari Watanabe-Rose, director of undergraduate education initiatives and research at CUNY,  and Daniel Douglas, a CUNY graduate student in sociology.

The study also found long-term benefits for the students placed in college-level statistics. By their third semester after enrolling, 57 percent had satisfied their school’s general education requirement for a quantitative course, compared to 16 percent of those who took remedial algebra.

Why so many students are spending six years getting a college degree

Participants were enrolled at community colleges in the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan, but the study did not identify the campuses. CUNY has seven community colleges, an honors college, 11 senior colleges and five graduate and professional schools.

Educators have long wrestled with the problem of remedial courses in math and other subjects. They are keenly aware that students often fail to get through the requirements. But faculty also insist on maintaining high academic standards.

Bruce Vandal, a senior vice president at the Indianapolis-based nonprofit Complete College America, said that pre-requisite remedial courses are one of the biggest reasons students are not successful in higher education. Students of color and those from poor families are disproportionately affected, he said: “It’s a profound issue.”

Vandal said the CUNY study bolsters the argument for schools to change their approach to remediation. Often it is better to give students a shot at real college credit while providing extra help at the same time, he said.

“Putting these students in college courses, treating them like college students, makes a huge impact,” Vandal said.