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Community Colleges Rethink Remedial Math Instruction

Community college welcome sign
Several community college systems in Virginia are launching pilot programs that aim to re-envision math instruction. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

The fall semester officially started Monday at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond. And online learning isn’t the only change many students will experience. The college, along with several other community college systems in Virginia, is launching a pilot program that aims to re-envision math instruction. 

Last fall, about a third of Renolds students were recommended for remedial math classes, low-level courses designed to help struggling students excel, according to the school’s former assistant Vice President of academic affairs Ty Corbin.

Corbin, who recently retired after over 40 years with the college, said these remedial courses have actually been holding students back.

“There's been an awful lot of research conducted into the efficacy of remedial education, and the findings have largely been consistent that it has not been a particularly effective approach,” Corbin said.

Research shows that more than 4 out of 10 college students who end up in remedial courses have a worse chance of graduating, than if they had enrolled directly into college-level courses.

“The evidence is already out there that placement testing is not a good measure of a student's likelihood of being successful,” Corbin said.

The new math pilot program will place qualifying high school graduates directly into college-level math courses based on their GPAs and prior math experience, instead of relying on placement test scores. The school isn’t completely eliminating remedial instruction; students with lower GPAs will have to enroll in one-semester refresher courses. 

Tod Massa, policy director for the Virginia Council of Higher Education, said it’s time for colleges to rethink how math is taught, and why certain math courses are even required for graduation regardless of major.

“An educational requirement has to be about accomplishment. What does it mean that this student can do this?” Massa said. “Historically it's been about taking calculus to meet your college math requirement. Is that really that useful to people? Not many people use that skill... it's almost like the dress code at a golf course; all that is about excluding people.”

In addition to restructuring fall math courses, Reynolds is also adding supplemental instructors to online classes to provide additional support for students, as well as other math coaching resources.

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Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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