Algebra is clearly a stumbling block for many incoming college students. Nearly 60 percent of community college students end up in remedial math — that’s more than double the number in remedial English. Four-year public colleges are not far behind. According to government studies, 40 percent of their incoming students take at least one remedial class; 33 percent are in math.
One explanation is obvious: limited academic preparation. Another is that much of the community college population is older, and rusty at factoring quadratics and finding inverse functions. Less obvious is that students end up in remediation who don’t need to be there.
There’s evidence for this, most recently in an analysis published in September by the National Center for Education Statistics. To determine if students are ready for college-level work, colleges often rely on one thing: the score on a test, be it the ACT, SAT or Accuplacer, the most common of the placement tools.
But when the N.C.E.S. took a deeper look and considered two additional factors — grade-point average and level of math taken in high school — it found that 40 percent of “strongly prepared” students at public two-year colleges and 13 percent at four-year institutions had taken remedial math.
Further, moderately or strongly prepared students were more likely to get a bachelor’s degree if they skipped remediation altogether and went straight to college-level classes.
Why? Researchers aren’t sure, but they suspect that many students assigned to remedial education, which costs money but doesn’t count for credit, get frustrated and give up on college.
Amid much hand-wringing, colleges have begun to wake up to the problem. Some are offering short brushups rather than semester-long classes, others have introduced “corequisite” remediation, allowing students to enroll in a college-level and remedial class at the same time, for extra academic support.
There’s a bigger question: What, exactly, should students be getting ready for? Traditionally, the default at two-year colleges has been to require students to take a college algebra class — credits they know four-year colleges will accept from community college transfer students — and remedial classes are designed to prepare them for that.
But some policy makers are reconsidering whether every student needs to master algebra. At least 11 states have set up task forces to examine the question. Some have already made changes. To satisfy the math requirement in Ohio’s public colleges, students not planning to major in math- or science-related fields can go right into a college statistics or quantitative reasoning class despite lower test scores. In Texas, if a student will be taking statistics, the remedial class prepares him for that instead of college algebra.
In September, the College Board, acknowledging the problem, began phasing in a new version of its Accuplacer. The redesigned, adaptive test groups questions in more clearly identifiable pathways, hoping to make it easier for college advisers to match skill level with planned field of study. Of course, the judgment is still in the hands of the colleges. And even the College Board notes that a test should not be the sole indicator of whether a college student is ready for college classes.
Emily Hanford is senior education correspondent for APM Reports and producer of the audio documentary “Stuck at Square One: The Remedial Education Trap.”
Χαράλαμπος Κ. Φιλιππίδης