Equity and Stand-Alone Remedial Math Courses

One of the key errors that co-requisite (mainstreaming) advocates make is the treatment of ‘developmental mathematics courses’ as a single concept.  We would not expect college students who place into arithmetic to have comparable outcomes to those who place into intermediate algebra.  However, most ‘research’ cited with damning results uses that approach.  We need to have a more sophisticated understanding of our work, especially with respect to equity (ethnicity in particular).

A local study by Elizabeth Mary Flow-Delwiche (2012) looked at a variety of issues in a particular community college over a 10 year period; the article is “Community College Developmental Mathematics: Is More Better?“, which you can see at http://mipar.umbc.edu/files/2015/01/Flow-Delwiche-Mathematics-2012.pdf   I want to look at two issues in particular.

The first issue is the basic distribution of original placement by ethnicity.  In this study, ‘minority’ means ‘black or hispanic’; although these ethnicity identities are not equivalent, the grouping makes enough sense to look at the results.  The study covers a 10 year period, using cohorts from an 8 year period; partway through the 8 year period, the cutoffs were raised for mathematics.

Here is the ‘original’ distribution of placement by ethnicity using the data in the study:
Distribution by level Flow-Delwiche 2012 Original









After the cutoff change, here is the distribution of placement:
Distribution by level Flow-Delwiche 2012 New HigherCutoffs









Clearly, the higher cutoffs did exactly what one would expect … lower initial placements in mathematics.  However, within this data is a very disturbing fact:

The modal placement for minorities is ‘3 levels below college’ (usually pre-algebra)

This ‘initial placement’ data appears to be difficult to obtain; I can’t share the data from my own college, because we do not have ‘3 levels below’ in our math courses.  However, the fact that minorities … black students in particular … place most commonly in the lowest dev math course is consistent with the summaries I have seen.

We know that a longer sequence of math courses always carries a higher risk, due to exponential attrition; see my post on that http://www.devmathrevival.net/?p=1685    Overall, the pass rates for minorities is less than the ‘average’ … which means that the exponential attrition risk is likely higher for minorities.

The response to this research is not ‘get rid of developmental mathematics’; the research, in fact, shows a consistent pattern of benefits for stand-alone remedial math courses.  This current study shows equivalent pass rates in college math courses, regardless of how low the original placement was (1-, 2-, or 3-levels below); in fact, the huge Achieve the Dream (ATD) data set shows the same thing.  See page 46 of the current research study.

The advocates of co-requisite (mainstreaming) focus on the fact that 20% or more of the students ‘referred’ to developmental mathematics never take any math AND the fact that only 10% to 15% of those who do ever pass a college math course.  The advocates suggest that a developmental math placement is a dis-motivator for students, and claim that placing them into college math will be a motivator.  Of all the research I’ve read, nothing backs this up — there are plenty of attitudinal measures, but not about placement; I suspect that if such studies existed, the advocates would be including this in their propaganda.

However, there is plenty of research to suggest that initial college courses … in any subject … create a higher risk for students; it’s not just mathematics.  So, the issue is not “all dev math is evil”; the issue is “can we shorten the path while still providing sufficient benefits for the students”.    This goes back to the good reasons to have stand-alone remedial math courses (see http://www.devmathrevival.net/?p=2461 ); although we often focus on just ‘getting ready for college math’, developmental mathematics plays a bigger role in preparing students.  The current reform efforts (such as the New Life Project with Math Literacy and Algebraic Literacy) provide guidance and models for a shorter dev math sequence.

Even if a course does not directly work on student skills and capabilities, modern developmental mathematics courses prepare students for a broad set of college courses (just like ‘reading’ and ‘writing’).  It’s not just math and science classes that need the preparation; the vast majority of academic disciplines are quantitatively focused in their modern work, though many introductory courses are still taught qualitatively … because the ‘students are not ready’.  Our colleagues in other disciplines should be up in arms over co-requisite remediation — because it is a direct threat to the success of their students.

Developmental mathematics is where dreams go to thrive; our job is to modernize our curriculum using a shorter sequence to give a powerful boost for all students … especially students of color.

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