Program Offers a Quicker Path to College Credit for Students Mired in Remedial Courses

March 13, 2013

A developmental mathematics program unveiled on Wednesday by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching shows promise in helping students avoid the remedial quicksand that prevents many from graduating.

The "Statway" program, tested last year at 21 colleges, more than tripled the rates at which remedial students earned college math credit, Carnegie officials said. The students got there twice as fast, too.

The program, which focuses on statistics and data analysis, replaces remedial math sequences that can take more than two years with an intensive yearlong program. During that year, students complete remedial requirements and earn credit for college-level statistics.

Nearly two-thirds of new community-college students require developmental math before they can enroll in college-credit courses, Carnegie officials noted. Up to 80 percent of those students never get out of the remedial sequence, they said.

"The community college offers access to a better job and a better life," the foundation's president, Anthony S. Bryk, said in a Web conference with reporters on Wednesday. "It is essential that developmental math be a gateway to opportunity rather than a gatekeeper."

High failure rates for remedial courses have prompted national groups to call for sweeping changes in how they're taught.

Fifty-one percent of students who finished the Statway program went on to earn college math credit with a C or better. By comparison, only 5.9 percent of the developmental-math students at the pilot colleges who weren't involved in the study earned college math credit after one year, 15.1 percent did so after two years, and 23.5 percent after four years.

The statistics program was tested during the 2011-12 academic year at 19 community colleges and two state universities across five states. The sections were taught by 50 faculty members to a total of 1,133 students.

"These are the students that community colleges especially need to serve well," Mr. Bryk said. A disproportionate number are members of minority groups, are from families whose primary language is not English, or have parents who did not attend college.

One key to the program's success is making math relevant and interesting.

By applying math concepts to determine the braking distance of their cars, for instance, rather than simply plugging numbers into an equation and hoping for the right answer, students see the connection with their lives, Carnegie officials said.

"Students tell us they're learning mathematics that matters to them instead of a series of disconnected math concepts," said Karon Klipple, who directs the Statway program for Carnegie.

The program also works on student motivation, tenacity, and success skills.

Mr. Bryk said he expected similar results from a second effort, called "Quantway," that teaches quantitative reasoning, which applies math concepts to real-life problems. That program began in the spring for 418 students at eight community colleges in three states.

The programs are the result of a Carnegie-led brainstorming effort by a network of community colleges, professional associations, and educational researchers. It received support from several major philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation.