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Report · October 2017

Reforming Math Pathways at California’s Community Colleges

Hans Johnson, Olga Rodriguez, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Bonnie Brooks

This research was supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, College Futures Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.

The goal of developmental education (also known as remedial or basic skills education) is to help students acquire the skills they need to be successful in college courses, but its track record is poor. In fact, it is one of the largest impediments to student success in California’s community colleges. Many students do need additional work to be ready for college, particularly in math. But every year hundreds of thousands of students are deemed underprepared for college and placed into developmental courses from which relatively few emerge. Throughout the state, community colleges are revising assessment and placement procedures to ensure that students who are ready for college are not placed in developmental education. And, given the high failure rates in traditional developmental courses, colleges are also experimenting with alternative curricular approaches.

In this report, a follow-up to our earlier statistical portrait of developmental education, we analyze two new reforms in developmental math, known as statistics pathways and compressed math pathways. Both approaches aim to reduce the amount of time students spend in developmental math by reducing the amount of coursework and eliminating exit points-transitions where students are likely to leave the developmental sequence due to failure to re-enroll in the next course in the sequence. Statistics pathways also aim to create an alternative non-algebra based sequence for students in majors that only require statistics (art, sociology, English, journalism, psychology, and other liberal arts and humanities fields). In comparing outcomes for students in these two approaches to those for students in traditional developmental pathways, we find that:

  • Outcomes are substantially better for students in the statistics pathway. Almost half (49% in our model) of students who start the statistics pathway eventually complete a transfer-level math course, compared to only 16 percent of students who start the traditional developmental sequence with elementary algebra. Statistics students also earn more transfer units (39 versus 27) and are more likely to transfer within three years.
  • Outcomes for students in the compressed algebra pathway are somewhat better. About one in four (28% in our model) students who take compressed algebra eventually complete a transfer-level math course, compared to only 15 percent of students who take the traditional two-course algebra sequence. They also earn more units (34 versus 27).
  • All student groups-including underrepresented students-have better outcomes in the statistics and compressed algebra pathways. Across every ethnic group, gender, and income groups, students do better in the reform pathways than in the traditional pathway. However, our findings suggest that gaps in achievement between groups might still exist even with the reforms.
  • The lowest levels of developmental math do not work. Very few students who begin at the lowest level of developmental math-arithmetic-eventually complete a transfer-level math course. Compressed arithmetic and pre-algebra students do only marginally better, but even so fewer than 10 percent complete a transfer-level math course.

While some of these reforms are promising, there is a lot of room for improvement. Increasing enrollment in statistics and compressed math pathways would benefit many more students. But further efforts are necessary to enhance the efficacy of developmental education. Even in the statistics pathway, fewer than half of students complete a transfer-level math course. Better placement policies could also improve student outcomes. Some of the most recent efforts, including using high school courses and grades to place more students directly into transfer-level courses with co-requisite support, have potential. More work needs to be done to ensure that these and other reforms help students achieve long-term goals and to implement these reforms across the entire community college system.


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