Are college remedial courses effective?

Among postsecondary students who began their studies in 2003–04, 68 percent of those at public two-year colleges and 40 percent at public four-year colleges took at least one remedial course during their enrollment between 2003 and 2009. Of course, we’d prefer that students not need remediation in the first place. But if they do, how effective are these courses?

A report by Tom Kane and colleagues sheds light on the question, examining the impact of a statewide college remediation policy in Tennessee on students’ ability to take and pass college-level math and accumulate college-level credits. The original goal of the program, called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Supports, or SAILS, was to shift the locus of math remediation from college back to high school. The program was gradually rolled out to a majority of Tennessee high schools over the last several years.

It works like this: Students in SAILS-participating schools who score below the remediation threshold of 19 on the ACT math test (that’s roughly half of the seniors in those schools) can fulfill their math remediation by completing an online math course their senior year. If they complete all five online modules, they are exempted from math remediation when they enroll in a Tennessee community college.

Analysts examine SAIL’s impact for seniors in three academic years (2013–16) under two different versions of the program. The first requires students to complete remediation before college (that’s pre-requisite remediation); the second allows students to enroll in remediation concurrently with their college-level classes (the co-requisite version). They also use two research designs: difference in differences, where they compare the changes in student outcomes in schools implementing SAILS in the first year to the changes in outcomes for schools that had not yet implemented SAILS; and a regression discontinuity design that examines the outcomes of students who score right above or below the ACT-score threshold. The latter measures the impact of being assigned to remediation of any kind, meaning SAILS (pre-requisite, or co-requisite) versus no remediation.

The study has three key findings. First, under the “remediate-before college” policy, students with ACT scores below 19 enrolled in college-level math at higher rates after their schools implemented SAILS. Specifically, they were 29 percentage points more likely to enroll in college math, and roughly half passed the course, yielding a 13- percentage-point increase in the percentage passing college math by the end of their first year.

However—cue second finding—SAILS did not improve students’ math achievement. There was no difference in math performance on a mathematics post-test administered to students above and below the cutoff. Related, the program did not increase the likelihood of students passing college math. As indicated, half of them passed, yet the passing rates were not higher than for students with similar ACT scores just above the threshold for remediation.

Third, after the “concurrent-remediation” policy was introduced, SAILS no longer had an impact on the percentage of students taking or passing college math during their first year, nor on the total number of credits completed by their second year. In other words, the concurrent policy bypassed the original intent of SAILS by allowing students to do their remediation alongside college-level courses. There were also no differences in program impact by race.

The lackluster results led analysts to hypothesize that self-paced online courses may not be well-suited to the needs of low achieving students. (We’ve heard that before.) Or maybe the program simply wasn’t very good at teaching math. Or perhaps taking math remediation during one’s senior year in high school is simply too little, too late. All three theories are possible. But having once taught high school seniors, the latter particularly resonates with this author. Trust me: Trying to get eighteen-year-olds to play catch-up when most have an acute case of senioritis is a losing proposition.

SOURCE: Thomas J. Kane et al., “Remedial Math Goes to High School: An Evaluation of the Tennessee SAILS Program,” Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University (October 2018).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.