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2015 July 28 - 11:25 pm

Crunching The Numbers

Researchers Say Placement Tests Undermine Remedial Math Reform

AP Photo/The Modesto Bee, Debbie Noda

Developmental math has been called an educational Bermuda Triangle: students go in but they never come out.

All across the country, community colleges are making commendable efforts to remove a critical barrier to student success: they are reforming their remedial math policies and practices, targeting a seemingly insurmountable hurdle to earning a degree.

Colleges in Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana Missouri and Colorado are among those redesigning math pathways, essentially rejecting the historical imperative that all college students demonstrate math proficiency by mastering, or at least passing, Algebra 2.

Those states, with support from the New Mathways Project at the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, are making a transition to differentiated math pathways. It’s a redesign of college math courses and sequences to move students through developmental and college-level math in no more than one year by tying math sequences to career goals and student interests.

The New Mathways Project is developing resources that will support three pathways: statistical reasoning, quantitative reasoning and STEM-prep.

Developmental students take two introductory courses simultaneously designed to equip them with the foundations for learning and give them strategies for succeeding in math.

The students then branch into a college level course that meets their career interests and academic goals.

Other states are taking similar approaches and developing their own versions of differentiated math pathways. Massachusetts, North Carolina and Oklahoma are letting colleges experiment with new approaches to remedial math. California has created the California Acceleration Project, a faculty-led project which helps state community colleges offer redesigned remedial sequences.

The need for reform is clear. Developmental math long has been called the Bermuda Triangle of community colleges: students go in but never come out. More than 60 percent of community college students are placed into at least one developmental math course. In California, home to the country’s largest community college system, the figure is 85 percent. Only 20 percent of students who enter into developmental math complete any college-level course within three years. For students placed into low-level developmental courses, the figures are even worse.

Colleges and states that have created differentiated pathways are seeing positive results. For example:

• Statway©, an alternate math pathways sequence developed by the Carnegie Institute for the Advancement of Learning, focuses on statistics and data analysis, combining college-level statistics with developmental math. It is designed to teach mathematics skills essential for a growing number of occupations. In 2012, 52 percent of students enrolled in Statway© at 18 colleges completed the full pathway and earned college credit within one year, compared to 5.9 of non-Statway© students.

• In 2011-12, 38 percent of students in the California Acceleration Project completed a college-level statistics course in one year, compared to 12 percent of students not part of the project.

• In Texas, 65 percent of students enrolled in the New Mathways Project completed their developmental requirements within one year, compared to 26 percent of students enrolled in traditional developmental courses.

Those statistics are part of a report recently released by Jobs for the Future, The Dana Center and Achieving the Dream. The report cites colleges that are thinking outside the box creating new pathways for community college students that align with their goals and experiences.

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Math teacher Thora Broyles, right, helps student Jamal Mabry in a remedial math class at Missouri State University-West Plains.

The report also underscores a critical mismatch that growing numbers of academics believe is undermining efforts to reform developmental math: the continued use of the Accuplacer standardized tests that most colleges use to assess the math skills of their incoming students.

Research has shown that placement tests do a poor job of assessing students’ skills and send far too many students into developmental math sequences. But even the states that have made significant progress in creating new math pathways continue to rely on standardized tests. The problem is that the tests often don’t reflect the differentiated content embedded in the new pathways.

Written by Lara K. Couturier, who leads research and publications at Jobs for the Future, and Jenna Cullinane, lead policy strategist at the Dana Center, the report is titled “A Call To Action To Improve Math Placement Policies and Processes” and it makes a strong case for policy makers to correct the mismatch.

“We want to get people on pathways where they can be successful,” Cullinane said. “We have arrived at this point as part of broader reform in developmental mathematics. It’s really connected to the whole intake process. How can we have a more coherent process from beginning to end?” Of particular interest to the authors is the effect the mismatch has on aspiring STEM students.

“This call to action is based on a simple but important premise: The nation cannot allow placement policies, processes, and instruments to undermine promising efforts to increase student success in mathematics and increase attainment of STEM credentials,” the report says. “Efforts to redesign math pathways hold great promise for improving the teaching and learning experiences of students who need college algebra — many of whom are STEM students — and helping those students persist toward and maintain STEM aspirations. But placement policies, processes, and instruments have not kept pace with math redesign efforts.

“The nation needs more students prepared for STEM jobs — particularly lowincome students, students of color, and underprepared students who historically have not had equitable access to preparation for and on-ramps to well-paying, dynamic STEM careers. To meet this need, mathematics course pathways must be a lever for helping students maintain and even increase their STEM aspirations. At the moment, however, far too many math courses — especially developmental math courses—serve as a serious obstacle and even deterrent to STEM-interested students seeking STEM credentials.”

The report makes six recommendations for reform:

• Begin the placement support process early to ensure entering students are ready for college-level math.

• Use multiple factors to determine whether students are placed into developmental courses and which developmental or gateway courses are most appropriate.

• Require testmakers to align placement tests with differentiated math pathways and improve their predictive value.

• Strengthen the role of student supports — especially advising — in the placement process.

• Prioritize student academic and career goals in the placement process.

• Create a bridging mechanism from non-algebra pathways into algebra pathways.

Implementing those reforms will present a challenge for colleges, Couturier said.

“Colleges will have to make some difficult reallocation decisions,” she said.

Still, the drive to reform the remedial math placement process is gaining momentum. A report issued jointly by LearningWorks (http://www.learningworksca.org), a California-based think tank which focuses on community colleges, and Policy Analysis for California Education (http://www.edpolicyinca.org) suggests that remedial math placement exams unfairly send the majority of community college students to remedial math courses, deterring them from completing a degree.

Written by Pamela Burdman, a higher education policy analyst, the California report says, “The awareness that many students who perform well in high school math are assigned to community college remedial courses is contributing to discomfort with the current uses of placement exams. A frequent response to such discrepancies has been to fault high school instruction or curriculum. But recent research findings add to concerns about unfair placement practices. For example, community college students are more likely to require remedial math courses than university students with similar records. And about a quarter of students placed into community college remedial math courses could have succeeded in college-level courses. High school grades also appear to be better predictors of success in college math courses than the placement tests that are typically used.”

Said Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks: “Re-shaping community college placement policies may be as important or even more important than redesigning the courses into which those policies place students.”

The report says standardized tests contain numerous, correctable shortcomings.

For example, they do not always align with high school curriculum.

“The tests typically emphasize algebra skills,” Burdman writes. “But there is no clear consensus about how much algebra college students need, and statistics and data analysis are increasingly considered core skills for college success.”

The report notes other flaws, including overreliance by colleges. Sometimes the tests are the sole factor on admissions decisions, though test writers say that should never be the case. In addition, students frequently don’t realize just how critical the tests are to their academic futures.” “Though those limitations may sound abstract and technical, in reality they affect tens of thousands of California students,” Burdman concludes. “Each year, some 47,000 entering community college students may be required to repeat that content in a remedial course based on their placement test results.”

Numerous colleges are already taking steps to improve the placement process. They are changing tests based on the assumption that the design or content is flawed. They are de-emphasizing standardized tests through the use of multiple measures, including high school grades. They are supporting students’ test-taking through things like refresher courses and math boot camps.

The stakes for improving placement policies and practices are incredibly high, the report asserts.

“College math requirements and associated assessments should serve as a foundation for students’ academic success, not merely a filter to manage enrollment. In the face of research on math placement exams and remedial sequences, it has become increasingly difficult to justify sentencing students to multiple remedial courses based on a score on a one-hour test. Failure to address such barriers is tantamount to diverting a generation of students from earning a college degree and giving up on California community colleges’ democratizing role.”

Researchers and advocates also have more work to do in convincing state policy makers that new math pathways, hand-in-hand with improved placement practice and policies, hold great promise for improving student success.

“I think we need more models where colleges have undertaken this comprehensive approach,” said JFF’s Couturier. “We need it to happen, but we don’t have enough models right now to scale it up in a resource appropriate way.”

Cullinane believes colleges have made substantial progress and the time to begin reforming placement is now.

“We really need to establish these pathways, and that is happening,” she said. “I think we are there now. Now we need to talk about how to get students in. It’s time to talk about placement.”

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