remedial math

Statewide Approaches to Remedial Math

By Ellen Ullman

Community colleges in Massachusetts are experimenting with new ways to overhaul developmental math.

When Carlos E. Santiago, commissioner of higher education for Massachusetts, joined the state agency, in early 2013, a task force was already in place to transform developmental math. Needless to say, the data that helped form the task force was abysmal: 60 percent of students who entered community college in 2010 needed remediation in math or English, and only 2,000 of the 11,000 students who needed remediation completed a credit-bearing course two years later.

“Something had to change, so we began exploring ways to improve placement, pedagogy and curriculum,” Santiago says.

Purposeful remedial math pilots

First up: revising how students get placed into remedial classes. Since 1998, all Massachusetts community colleges were required to use the Accuplacer suite of tests. The task force recommended that colleges try one of the following options: continue with Accuplacer; use a student’s GPA (if above 2.7, no remediation); or use the GPA and additional assessments, such as grades from high school math classes.

Since data showed that students going from one developmental class to another was a recipe for failure, community colleges also began exploring ways to refine the curriculum, such as allowing students to take a standard credit-bearing course, with co-requisites such as an extra hour of class time.

Massachusetts Bay Community College developed math courses that are integrated into a student’s field of study. Students can also take a “boot camp” class online or in person to prepare for math.

Middlesex Community College revamped its developmental classes into self-paced online modules. Students take only the classes they need to prepare for college-level math. Overall, persistence in any math course increased from 52 percent from fall 2010 to spring 2011, to 62 percent from fall 2012 to spring 2013.

Cape Cod Community College collaborated with six local high schools to conduct extensive test-preparation and math-refresher workshops. From 2011 to 2013, the percentage of first-time students enrolled in developmental education declined from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Positive results

Community colleges began piloting the alternative placement methods in the fall of 2014: 15 campuses used new GPA placement standards, 10 campuses used modified GPA (e.g., GPA plus SAT score or math GPA), and seven campuses continued to use Accuplacer. So far, the colleges that used GPA or modified GPA have more students placing into college-level math. Even better, those students are succeeding at the same rate as nonremedial students. Colleges that continued using Accuplacer had no change.

“If you take two students — one who needs remediation and one who doesn’t — and put them in the same class, the outcomes are extremely positive,” Santiago says. “One of our campuses made phenomenal turnaround in success in its gateway math course: They put everyone in standard math, but students with deficiencies took an extra hour.”

Santiago says he’s talked with a lot of chief academic officers who tell him they will never go back to using Accuplacer. “Using the GPA is helping so many students get into credit-bearing classes and succeed at the same rate as everyone else, with a positive impact on enrollment and retention.”

By the end of this year, Massachusetts will have a full year of data and start forming recommendations for the Board. As Santiago says, “We still have a couple of years of experimentation, but so far it looks pretty good.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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