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...