Data on Co-requisite Statistics (‘mainstreaming’)

Should students who appear to need beginning algebra be placed directly in a college statistics course?  For some people, this is no longer a question — they have concluded that the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’.  A recent research study appears to provide evidence; however, the study measured properties outside of what they intended and does not answer a basic question.

So, the study is “Should Students Assessed as Needing Remedial Mathematics Take College-Level Quantitative Courses Instead? A Randomized Controlled Trial” by Logue et al.  You can read they report at

The design is reasonably good.  About 2000 students who had been placed into beginning algebra at a CUNY community college were invited to participate in the experiment.  Of those who agreed (about 900), participants were randomly assigned in to one of 3 treatments:

  1. Elementary Algebra regular    39% passed
  2. Elementary Algebra with weekly workshops   45% passed
  3. College Statistics with weekly workshops    56% passed

At these colleges, the typical pass rate for elementary algebra was 37% while statistics had a normal pass rate of 69%.

The first question about this study should be … Why is the normal pass rate in elementary algebra so appallingly low?  I suspect that the CUNY community colleges are not isolated in having such a low pass rate, but that does not change the fact that the rate is unacceptable.

The second question about the study should be … Would we expect a strong connection between completing remediation (or not) with performance in elementary statistics?   The authors of this study make the following statement:

it has been proposed that students can pass college-level statistics more easily than remedial algebra because the former is less abstract and ses everyday examples

In other words, statistics is not abstract … not mathematics at the college level.  The fact that statistics focuses on ‘real world’ data is not the problem; the fact that the study of statistics does not involve properties and relationships within a mathematical system IS a problem.  I’ve written on that previously (see “Plus Four: The Role of Statistics in Mathematics Education at

The study uses ‘mainstreaming’ in their descriptions of the statistics sections in their experiment; I find that an interesting and perhaps better phrase than ‘co-requisite’.  It’s unlikely that the policy makers will move to a different phrase.

The authors of this study conclude that many students who place into elementary algebra could take college-level math (represented by statistics in their study) with additional support.  The problem is that they never dealt with the connection question:  How much algebra does a student need to know in order to succeed in basic statistics?  The analysis I am aware of is “not much”; in the Statway (™) program, most of the remediation is in the domains of numeracy and proportional reasoning … very limited algebra.

This is the basic problem posed in all of the ‘research’ on co-requisite remediation:  students are placed into low-algebra courses (statistics, liberal arts math), and … when they generally succeed .. the proclamation is the ‘co-requisite remediation works!’.  That’s not what is happening at all.  Mostly what the research is ‘proving’ is that those particular college ‘math’ courses had an inappropriate prerequisite of algebra (beginning or intermediate).

Part of our responsibility is to explain to non-math experts what the relationships are between various math courses, using language and concepts that they can understand while preserving fidelity with our own work.  We need to make sure that policy makers understand that it is not an issue of us ‘not wanting to change’ … the issue is that we have a different understanding of the problem and potential solutions.  In many colleges, the math department is already ahead of where the policy makers want us to ‘go’.

I encourage you to read this study thoroughly;  Because it using a ‘control’ and ‘random assignment’ design, this study is likely to become a star for policy makers.  We need to understand the study and provide a better interpretation.

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  • By Peter Brown, July 9, 2016 @ 7:03 pm

    Excellent post Jack. Strangely- to me- what is never mentioned in these studies is student ‘learning’. There is also never a mention of content and objectives, and never a mention of any metric to measure anything except success. Students passed what? Students learned what? Was any real educational need met? Student success should always be married to student learning.

  • By Jeff Waller, July 24, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    Thank you for this article. You’ve articulated my thoughts well. The California Acceleration Project is all about this “mainstreaming”. They pat themselves on the back for improved completion rates while making fun of the poor completion rates of colleges that haven’t given up on algebra. It depresses me, especially that it is fellow math teachers behind this. What is the best way to fight back against this movement?

  • By Jack Rotman, July 26, 2016 @ 11:30 am

    Thanks for the comment.
    I understand the concern with “CAP” (California Acceleration Project). I have had several conversations with the main math person (Myra Snell), and know that it will be difficult to ‘fight back’. In some ways, CAP is less focused on improvements due to professional conversations … and more focused on scaling up a specific set of solutions. Your best option may be to keep information out there about how limited those solutions are in terms of student populations (and it would help to have some data to back this up).

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