Dev Math: Where Dreams go to Thrive … Part II (Evidence)

Developmental mathematics is where dreams go to thrive; we have evidence that even the traditional courses help students succeed in college.  The narrative suggested by external political forces is often based on a simplistic view of students which is out of touch with reality.  Let’s help by spreading the word on a more complete understanding.

Students who need to take developmental math courses have a wide range of remediation needs.  Peter Bahr’s study on pathways with single or multiple domains of deficiency ( concluded that the basic college outcomes (such as earning a degree) show equivalent outcomes for groups of students (needed remediation versus not).

A totally different analysis by Attewell et al 2006 (see also reaches a conclusion of equal results between groups in many ways.  Many studies of remediation are simple summaries of enrollment and grades over a short period of time.  The Attewell research was based on a longitudinal study begun on 8th graders in 1988 (thus, the acronym “NELS: 88”) done by the National Center for Educational Statistics.  Over an 12 year period, the study collected high school and college information as well as additional tests and surveys on this sample.

A key methodology in this research is ‘propensity matching’ — using other variables to predict the probability of an event and then using this probability to analyze key data.  For example, high school courses and grades, along with tests, were used to calculate the probability of needing remediation in college … where a sample of students with given probabilities did not take any remediation while another sample did.  An interesting curiosity in the results is the finding that low SES and high SES students have equal enrollment rates in remedial math when ‘propensity matched’.

Thrive: Key Result #1
Students taking remedial courses have a higher rate of earning a 2-year degree than students who do not take remedial courses with similar propensity scores for needing remedial courses.  Instead of comparing students who take remediation with the entire population, this study compared students taking remediation with similar students who did not take remediation.  The results favor remediation (34% versus 31%)

In the bachelor degree setting, the results are the other direction — which the authors analyze in a variety of ways.  One factor is the very different approach to remediation in the two sectors (4-year colleges over-avoid remediation, 2-year colleges slightly over-take remediation).   However, the time-to-degree between the two groups is very similar (4.97 years with remediation, 4.76 years without).

Thrive: Key Result #2
Students taking three or more remedial courses have just slightly reduced results.  This study shows a small decline for students needing multiple remedial courses: 23.5% earn 2-year degree, versus 27.5% of similar students without multiple courses.  The Bahr study, using a local sample, produced equivalent results in this same type of analysis.

It’s worth noting that the results for multiple remedial courses are pretty good even before we use propensity matching:  25.9% complete 2-year degree with multiple remedial courses versus 33.1% without.  This clearly shows that dreams thrive in developmental mathematics, even among students with the largest need.

Thrive: Key Result #3
Students taking 2 or more remedial math courses have results almost equivalent to other students.  The predicted probabilities for students with multiple remedial math courses is 23.8%, compared to similar students without multiple remedial math (26.7%).

Note that this study was based on data from prior to the reform movements in developmental mathematics.  Even then, the results were reasonably good and indicate that the remediation was effective at leveling the playing field.

Thrive: Key Result #4
This is the best of all:  Students who complete all of their math remediation have statistically equivalent degree completion (2-year) compared to similar students (34.0% vs 34.7%)

This result negates the common myth that taking multiple remedial math courses spells doom for students.  The data shows that this is not true, that completing math remediation does what it is meant to do — help students complete their degree.


I encourage you to take a look at this research; it’s likely that you will spot something important to you.  More than that, we should all begin to present a thrive narrative about developmental mathematics — because that is what the data is showing.

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