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Shifting the Focus of Remedial Math Helps More Students Succeed, Study Finds

Report: “Laying the Foundations: Early Findings From the New Mathways Project”

Authors: Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, senior research associate, and John Diamond, research analyst, both at MDRC

Organization: MDRC, a nonprofit research group

Summary: Mathematics is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for community-college students. Up to 70 percent of entering students are placed in remedial math, and only one in five of those students completes a college-level math course within three years. One of the most promising strategies to break that logjam, according to the MDRC researchers, is the New Mathways Project, developed by the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Unlike traditional approaches to remedial math, which focus on algebra, the New Mathways curricula cover math skills that proponents say are more applicable to most careers. The skills include basic quantitative literacy and statistics like being able to manipulate fractions and percentages and to understand statistical charts and graphs. Changing the content, the researchers conclude, is more effective than other redesign efforts that compress the same math content into fewer semesters.

Different pathways are offered to students depending on their academic and career focus. A quantitative-reasoning pathway might be appropriate for students in humanities or general liberal-arts fields, while a science, technology, engineering, and math pathway would fit students in fields that require strong algebraic skills, such as chemistry, computer science, or engineering.

The report covers the project’s development from the spring of 2012 through its first year at nine Texas colleges in 2013-14. Challenges included reservations by some faculty members about the course content and concerns about whether credits would transfer to four-year colleges. Still, by the fall of 2014, 20 Texas community-college systems were offering at least one New Mathways course with promising early results.

Bottom Line: The New Mathways Project is frequently cited as a national model for getting students over the hump of remedial math.

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