Monday, June 01, 2015

 

Early Feedback from Florida


As a political scientist by training -- one of the disciplines that trains the most leaders, apparently -- I’m generally skeptical of anything labeled “early results from Florida.”  The reliability of such things tends to be iffy.

That said, Florida made remedial coursework optional for students in public colleges and universities, effective in the Fall of 2014, and we have some early results.

Not surprisingly, enrollments in remedial courses dropped by about 40 percent.  And pass rates in the college-level math classes students took instead dropped by about five points.

I’m inclined to read the combination as positive.

Yes, the pass rate in college level classes dropped, which isn’t a great sign.  But the drop was much smaller than the number of students skipping developmental coursework would suggest.  And to get a fair comparison, just looking at the pass rate in the college level class won’t do it.  We should look at the pass rate at college level for students who skipped developmental classes, compared to the pass rate at the college level for students who started in developmental.  In other words, look at the percentage of students in Basic Math I who make it through College Math 1.  My guess is that the drop would be more than five points.

The early returns are consistent with what we’ve seen locally.  Last Fall we did a pilot with a cohort of 500 students, offering them the option of skipping developmental math if they placed into it.  About half took the option, which is pretty close to what happened in Florida.  Between the two, I’m encouraged by the number of students who chose to take basic skills classes even when they weren’t required to.  Self-awareness is a beautiful thing.

That said, a few qualifiers:

First, it’s not clear whether the results in math are similar to the results in English.  My guess is that the needle is harder to move in English.  That’s a testable hypothesis, though, and I could envision a combination of optional skips for developmental math and something like the ALP for English having a beneficial effect.

Second, just because a student skipped developmental math doesn’t necessarily mean she took college-level math.  She may have simply procrastinated math.  Students do that more than you might think, when given the chance.  It’s incredibly self-defeating, but I’ve seen students finish everything required for graduation except math, and then require multiple semesters to pass math.  Far better to attack it upfront.  To the extent that the difference in college math pass rates is so small because students skipped it altogether, future semesters should fill out the story.  

Third, and I cringe even to mention it, I’d want some reassurance that there was no formal or informal pressure on faculty in the college-level classes to lower standards to goose the rates.  It shouldn’t happen, and I’d like to think it never does.  But I wouldn’t be shocked, either, and if it does, then the information gathered would be skewed.  Again, some of those effects should wash out over time; you can’t keep up that pressure forever.

In my experience, the first semester of a new approach typically gets worse results than subsequent semesters.  To the extent that the numbers we’re seeing are untainted, and mostly not the result of students putting off math altogether, these results strike me as cause for some optimism.  

“Skip it,” as a solution to remediation, has a gordian-knot appeal.  It’s also affordable, and easy to scale.  If it winds up working, I foresee widespread adoption post-haste.  I just hope we can wait long enough to see if it’s actually working.  I’ve been mislead by early returns from Florida before...

Comments:
"I’d want some reassurance that there was no formal or informal pressure on faculty in the college-level classes to lower standards to goose the rates"

You're a math adjunct at Miami Dade College, making $1800 to teach a 3-credit math class. Why should you care about lowering standards when the pay is so inadequate in a city where the cost of living is so high?

The standards of treating the majority of community college math teachers is so low, why should they care about grading standards?
 
If the expectations that are communicated, formally or informally, are to pass a certain percentage of the students, give or take a bit, then adding more under-prepared students will adjust the curves but never show up in any "easier" or "harder" grading.

The advice will never be "Lower the standards" or "Make this class easier." Rather, the conversation will come as "Now, look, if [insert woefully large fraction here] of the people in the room are failing, clearly the problem is not them, it's that we aren't meeting them where they are at." "Now, now, you have to understand, obviously we need to have a standard, but you also have to ask if you are taking into account that our job is to take them where they are at and then hold them accountable for learning at a reasonable expectation given that you only have them for a semester."

Everything in the previous paragraph sounds reasonable from a certain perspective. All of it can be used to ensure the continued lowering of standards without naming it as such.
 
Well, it's clearly bad for the institution (not to mention the student) to have students passed through to higher levels when they're unprepared.

But from the adjunct instructor's point of view, that doesn't matter, as they might not be there next semester, and almost certainly won't be teaching those higher-level classes that will get the unprepared students.
 
What does it mean to be unprepared for the next level?

I can think of a situation where somebody pointed to a notorious weed-out course on my campus and said "If a majority of the students are failing, the problem probably isn't with them, it's probably with your teaching." Thing is, I occasionally teach the prereq to that weed-out class. You know why a majority of the students fail that class? Because my colleagues and I are privately a bit too ashamed and/or scared to fail a majority of the students in our prereq class. So we adjust grading scales accordingly.

And, mind you, many of us use clickers and whatnot in freshman classes, and assign activities to be done before class so they review, and all that good stuff. But it's still a hard subject, and you either compromise and set a lower standard than you like, or you spill blood everywhere. The people who teach that notorious weed-out class have apparently decided to spill blood everywhere because it's an essential prereq for success in their major, and their major has an outstanding reputation. More power to them.
 
When I taught Introduction To Math, I was told that 80% of my students should pass with a C or better. So they did.
 
Well, it's clearly bad for the institution (not to mention the student) to have students passed through to higher levels when they're unprepared.

Well...yes and no. Yes, grade inflation is clearly bad news for the institution in the long run. But, it can also benefit the institution in the short run as number-hungry bureaucrats and accreditors scrutinize the institution.

The immense pressure of meeting superficial short-term goals leads to decisions that erode long-term success.
 
Second, just because a student skipped developmental math doesn’t necessarily mean she took college-level math.
This. So very much this.
In the long run this reason will bear out over all the others. As I repeatedly inform students: The ability to "do" math isn't like riding a bicycle; if you don't use it, you lose it and the longer you don't use it, the more of it you lose.

C1
 
That newspaper article is worse than a collection of anecdotes, and certainly not "early results". For example, it doesn't name the distinct courses involved, which makes a huge difference because Math for Liberal Arts and College Algebra are not the same thing. It also doesn't say anything about English and fails to say anything about important curriculum changes that were made.

First, only graduates of Florida Public Schools can exempt themselves from remediation. Private school grads must follow the placement tests, so one group still has madatory remediation. Public school grads do not have to take any placement test, even for advisory purposes, but advisors have some tools they can use to suggest co-remediation classes. Rumor has it that students are more easily scared into doing some kind of remediation (like the ones you mentioned) for math than they are for English.

Second, students cannot exempt themselves directly into College Algebra. Students in STEM, Business, and majors that require Statistics must take Intermediate Algebra, which is not "college level" and thus might not be in those data at all. That is the gateway for STEM students, and the one where much can be learned about placement tests once the detailed statistical data are analyzed. It might take a year before we even have those students in a College Algebra class.

Those majoring in the non-STEM liberal arts take a pair of general education core classes called Liberal Arts Math that have almost no algebra content. They cover topics like financial math (compound interest) and logic and elementary probability and statistics. Passing those classes depends more on whether you come to class regularly and take the tests than anything else, and it will not surprise me if passing rates in those classes see only modest changes. The major curricular change (in addition to creating modular remediation or support classes) was that students no longer need to take Intermediate Algebra before taking Liberal Arts Math, and I expect that will increase their net passing and retention rate for exempt students.
 
I'd look at the demographics of the kids who are opting not to take developmental math versus those who do. My suspicion would be that they are different and then you have to decide if that is equitable.

 
"Not surprisingly, enrollments in remedial courses dropped by about 40 percent. And pass rates in the college-level math classes students took instead dropped by about five points."

I'm trying to find a way to tactfully, sensitively point out that you can't actually compare percentages of different populations (unless you know they're the same size). For example, a 40% drop in a group of 100 students can't be compared (via percentages) with a 5% drop in a group of 1,000 students.

So if all we've got are percentages then we can't actually say anything about the results.
 
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