Posted in HS4CC

Buh-bye Remedial Algebra

Remedial education is a controversial topic, but since remedial math doesn’t come into play until after high school, it’s a topic we don’t often discuss. Special thank you to HS4CC Illinois moderator Amy B. for catching this fantastic story about how New York took the time to ask whether or not remedial algebra was a good idea. The answer is shocking.

On a personal note, I have a big-fat-opinion about remedial classes. For 20 years, the community college system I worked for had a policy of placing students in remedial classes when they failed their admissions placement test. The message is framed as an opportunity- that we meet students of every ability and provide an education no matter their level. Can’t read? We can help. Can’t do math? We can help. It’s fantastic. But, this policy is rarely questioned by the general public, despite nearly 2/3 of every student being routed into at least 1 remedial class. On an aside, students hate it – but the shame of being placed in a remedial class keeps them quiet.

Remedial classes have so many disadvantages, but they are often ignored. For one thing, remedial classes delay starting a “real” class needed for a degree. Another point, is that they cost full price tuition, but financial aid pays (or you borrow), and with so many qualifying for Pell Grants, it feels “free” so who can complain about that? But finally, and my pet peeve, is that they make a student feel dumb. When a student is embarrassed, they will always underperform. When a student feels shame, they second-guess their ability to do future college level work. Student completion rates, in my opinion, are the number #1 problem colleges should be addressing. Remedial education sounds like a solution that may help students and completion rates, so what’s not to love?

For all my complaints, the biggest question is whether or not remedial classes actually work. If they work, then there is no rebuttal. But, do they work? Do students who take remedial classes catch up to where they “should be” as defined by the placement test? Ah-ha. There is the problem. Colleges don’t re-test students. Ever. They can’t tell you whether or not they work.

There is no reassessment, retest, or check-in at any point. Remedial education is a bit of a penalty the student must pay because they scored poorly. In short, the student must take the class, they must pay for the class, and they must pass the class…. but no one ever makes them take the placement test again.

If remedial classes worked, every student who failed their placement test would pass their placement test after the successful completion of the remedial program.

But since we don’t re-test, we don’t know. Worse still, is that we don’t care to know. Remedial courses are simply a “prerequisite” that must be met so a student can be cleared for enrollment in a “real” class. I maintain that it’s a cash-cow for every college, maybe even a scam, but I’ve got other fish to fry. Homeschool moms really don’t have time to fix a billion-dollar system. The best I can do is provide you with strategies for avoiding remedial classes Homeschooling for College Credit (pages 102-107) and help our community navigate around these roadblocks so they don’t stand in our way.

Until today. Today, The Hechinger Report (a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on education) released an jaw-dropping story that caught the attention of our HS4CC Illinois moderator Amy B. Oh, and it’s good. Link

I’ve pulled the highlights, but let me start with the end: we may be seeing the end of remedial education!

  • Alexandra Logue served as the chief academic officer of the City University of New York (CUNY) discovered that her 25-college system was spending over $20 million a year on remedial classes.  “Nobody could tell me if we were doing it the right way”
  •  More than two-thirds of all community college students and 40 percent of undergraduates in four-year colleges had to start with at least one remedial class, according to a statistical report from the U.S. Department of Education. The majority of these students dropped out without degrees.
  • An experimental psychologist by training, Logue designed an experiment. She compared remedial math classes to the alternative of letting ill-prepared students proceed straight to a college course accompanied by extra help. The results of her randomized control trial were extraordinary.
  • Students who started with college math or college statistics were successfully passing the course at a fraction of the cost of remediation, getting their math requirements out of the way, earning their degrees faster and earning thousands more in the labor market.
  • Many public colleges in New York, California, Nevada, Colorado, Connecticut and Tennessee, have started phasing out remedial ed

If you have an interest in this topic, I encourage you to read the full article linked above. There are a zillion details I’m leaving out, including the differences between the math and English findings, how they supported these students, and so on. All of that is very interesting, but my point of this post is not about the details- it’s about the challenge to the status quo. I LOVE the question (does it work?) because it helps students. Colleges and universities that never ask hard questions never serve their students well- and isn’t that what we all want?


Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

One thought on “Buh-bye Remedial Algebra

  1. My daughter had a low math ACT score and would have to have taken a remedial math class in college. We decided to sign her up for College Algebra at ASU’s Universal learner’s program which only charges $40 for taking the class initially. Only if the class is passed with a to the students acceptable grade do you have to pay a $400 fee so it actually counts for 3 college credits. It was a win/win situation. Either as a preparation to take another ACT test or to receive College Credit. My daughter studied super hard, and I am proud to say that she received 99% as her College Algebra final grade.

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