The Evolution of the Research on Mathematics Remediation Reform at CUNY and Elsewhere

Traditional mathematics remediation has been described as the largest single academic block to students graduating in the United States.  Most new college students are assessed as needing it, and the majority of those students never complete it—most of the students who take it do not pass, and many students avoid taking it at all.  Without completing assigned mathematics remediation, students usually cannot satisfy many of their college-level required courses, and so cannot graduate.

In 2008, when I became the chief academic officer of The City University of New York system, which includes 10 colleges that offer mathematics remediation (and 9 that do not), mathematics remediation was a big business.  At that time, CUNY was spending over $20 million per year on remediation, with the majority being on math remediation.  In recent years, I believe that figure has increased to over $30 million.

In 2008, CUNY was mostly delivering mathematics remediation as traditional courses.  These were courses covering only remedial material that were taught in a sequence.  Students could not take the next course in a sequence until they had passed the prerequisite course.  CUNY colleges offered two, and sometimes three, levels of math remediation that a student had to pass or test out of before being allowed to take many college-level courses.

However, research reports on various methods for delivering math remediation were appearing.  Some of those reports concluded that being exposed to traditional remedial courses increased a student’s later college success, and others concluded that new methods such as placing students assessed as needing math remediation directly into a college-level course with extra support were more helpful. Some of this research used what are known as quasi-experimental analytical techniques. But it was hard to know what to make of the research as a whole.  As an experimental psychologist, it appalled me that there was insufficient evidence guiding us in these huge expenditures of funds about programs that affected the lives of many thousands of students.

Therefore in 2013, along with Mari Watanabe-Rose and later Dan Douglas, I conducted a randomized controlled trial using over 900 students assessed as needing elementary (remedial) algebra.  We randomly assigned these students to traditional remediation, that course plus a weekly workshop, or introductory, college-level, credit-bearing statistics with a weekly workshop.  Twelve faculty each taught one section of each course type.  The results showed that there were significantly higher pass rates in the statistics course, and 2.5 years later, 8% more of the statistics students have graduated than the traditional remedial course students, and fewer of the statistics students have dropped out of college.  The students who were assigned to statistics have shown that they did not need to pass elementary algebra to pass statistics, nor did they need to pass elementary algebra in order to satisfy their college-level natural and social sciences requirements.

While we were following the ongoing performance of the participants in our experiments, the research literature on remediation had become large enough, including research conducted with rigorous methodology, that research reviews became possible.  Two such recent reviews have both concluded that the weight of the evidence now shows that traditional remediation, in general, makes it more difficult for students to advance in their academic careers.

Thus, in contrast to the state of the research in 2008, we can now conclude, with a fair degree of certainty, that placing students into traditional remediation, in most cases, is not the best path for them in terms of helping them to pass their college-level courses.  Tying math remediation to college-level courses when that remedial work is specifically needed to understand the college-level course material, streamlining and aligning required quantitative material, all seem to be more effective methods for helping students progress with their college-level requirements.

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