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Rethinking Remedial Math Education

Sep 28, 2011

Students all over the country experience significant and costly delays in earning their degrees because they arrive unprepared for college-level coursework and end up having to enroll in remedial courses. In an effort to accelerate this process, the Virginia Community College system is overhauling their remedial math program.

By Megan Driscoll

remedial math developmental math virginia community college

Many Students Are Unprepared for College

In 2008, Strong American Schools (SAS), a non-profit educational policy research group, released a report on the state of college preparatory education in American public high schools. Titled 'Diploma to Nowhere,' the report shows that high school academic standards are simply not sufficient to prepare many students for college-level coursework. As of 2004, 29% of all students in public, 4-year postsecondary institutions had enrolled in at least one remedial, or 'developmental,' course, as had 43% of all students in public, 2-year colleges.

The need for remedial education can have a significant - and expensive - impact on a student's education. These courses don't count toward a college degree, although they cost as much as courses that do, and they often end up causing students to need multiple extra years to graduate. Even more worrisome are the links between remedial education and dropping out: from the high school class of 1992, only 19% of students who took three or four developmental college courses had earned their bachelor's degrees by 2000. By contrast, 57% of those who didn't take any remedial courses finished their degrees within eight years.

And, of course, with the high cost to students comes a high cost to schools and tax payers in the form of financial aid and program subsidies. This has only grown more problematic in the years since the SAS report was released, as colleges strain to meet increasing demand with smaller and smaller budgets.

A Modular Approach

One group of schools has decided to tackle the remedial problem. The Virginia Community College system is set to launch a system-wide overhaul of their developmental math program in 2012. Their goal is to reduce the amount of time that students need to spend in these courses by offering more personalized remedial education.

Students end up in developmental courses after placement exams indicate that they're not academically prepared for college-level courses. However, most students don't fail across the board. Instead, there are specific skills and concepts that they still need to master. Under the new program, which has a modular design, Virginia Community College students will be able to focus only on the areas in which they need to improve. Rather than spending years completing a series of prescribed, semester-long developmental courses, they can catch up and move on to college-level coursework in just a few months to a year.

This move represents a significant leap for the college system, which will be adopting the new program simultaneously at 23 different colleges. Unlike most major curricular changes, this program hasn't undergone any formal pilot testing.

But Northern Virginia, one of the colleges in the system, has already started offering the new developmental math courses after its participation in a national project designed to improve remedial education. While it's too soon to truly measure the effect, early reactions have been positive. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, one professor reports that students have taken well to the new format. And a student participating in one of the new remedial courses says that she is enjoying the ability to progress at her own pace.

Many eyes will be on the Virginia Community College system as they roll out the program to all their schools. Assuming it goes well, they may provide a model for nationwide improvement of remedial education.

Recent surveys show that high schools are also failing to prepare students for the professional world.

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