Could Fewer ‘Remedial’ Math Classes Lead to More Success?

Colleges sometimes put students deemed unprepared for their math requirements in “remedial” classes. Though the intention is to help prepare students, these classes may actually be doing more harm than good, for some. A new study looks at what happened when one community college changed the way they do things.

Professor Marla Sole of Guttman Community College authored the new study, which appears in Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College. Sole’s work supports the idea that high school grade point average, or GPA, could be a better indicator of a student’s preparedness than entrance exam scores, and that correct placement in courses can lead to success.

Research has started to show that remedial, or “developmental,” education can actually be an obstacle to graduation. Additionally, Black, Hispanic, and female students are disproportionately represented in these courses, so these courses may be widening the racial and gender gaps rather than closing them.

At the school that Sole studied, all students must take one of two statistics classes. The school determines placement using an index that combines high school GPA and entrance exam scores, like the SAT. “Proficient” students take a one-semester course, and “non-proficient” students take a two-semester course that covers the same material.

But in 2018, the college gave a choice to “non-proficient” students whose high school GPA was over a certain mark. They could switch to the one-semester course if they wanted to.

Sole observed that students who switched in were more likely to get an A- or higher than students who had been placed in the streamlined course to begin with. This means these students had previously been under-placed.

Additionally, people in the one-semester course earned more credits over two years of college and a higher percentage of them graduated in two years, compared to students in the “developmental” course. While some might assume that “proficient” students are more motivated, Sole suggests that the “non-proficient” students might be held back by the stigma of remedial courses. Having to take an extra semester also creates the burden of additional costs and a longer wait before a student can start accumulating credits toward their degree.

There are alternatives, Sole says. For instance, someone who is not going into a STEM field might not need algebra. So rather than taking a remedial pre-algebra course, they might benefit more from going straight to a quantitative reasoning course with added refreshers on specific topics.