A new Harvard University Center for Education Policy Research (CEPR) study on Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) math remediation program is raising questions on the benefits of remediation for college students.
Although the SAILS program places math remediation back into high schools and increased student perceptions on the usefulness and enjoyment of math, the study found that the program did not increase students’ math achievement or increase their likelihood of passing college-level math courses.
“That is the most frightening” finding of the study, said Dr. Thomas J. Kane, the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education and Economics and faculty director of CEPR. “We need to identify a more effective model of remediation. We cannot simply assume that it’s benefiting [students].”
Dr. Thomas J. Kane
Kane added that higher education leaders have an “obligation” to ensure that remediation courses are not just another obstacle, but are helping students succeed in college-level coursework and degree attainment.
Research shows that more than a third of students entering community colleges nationally are required to take remedial courses. A National Center for Education Statistics study found that only 34 percent of community college students in remediation completed a degree or credential within six years.
Tennessee launched SAILS in 2012 with a goal to shift remediation back to high school, allowing students to enroll in college-level math courses earlier upon their arrival at a community college.
Tennessee students’ remediation status is dependent on their junior year ACT score. If a student scored below the cut-off threshold of 19 on the ACT math, they have the option to fulfill remediation requirements by participating in SAILS their senior year.
Students work through the online modules in the program at their own pace and with the help of a teacher when needed. Those who complete the five modules do not have to take a math remedial course when they enroll at any community college in the state.
For its study, CEPR evaluated the impact of SAILS by tracking students’ outcomes from 119 high schools between 2010 and 2016.
Findings showed that under Tennessee’s pre-requisite policy, SAILS participants were 29 percentage points more likely to enroll in college math during the first year in community college. Approximately half of those students passed the course, leading to a 13-percentage point increase in the percentage of students who passed college math at the end of the first year, according to the study.
For the second year, SAILS had a smaller impact on college math enrollment and completion because students from non-participating SAILS high schools completed their remediation and caught up, the study said. At the end of year two, SAILS participants had only accumulated 4.5 more credits (1.5 courses) than peers who came from non-SAILS high schools.
The math remediation program did slightly increase SAILS participants’ perceptions on the usefulness and enjoyment of math, particularly for Black students.
Even so, when Tennessee implemented a co-requisite policy in 2015, SAILS no longer made an impact on students’ enrollment in and passing of college-level math in their first year or their credit completion by the end of year two, the study found.
Kane said that the co-requisite policy superseded the SAILS program because both programs had similar effects and because the co-requisite courses reached a larger share of the state’s students.
However, he said moving the remediation requirement to coincide with students college-level courses leaves open the question of if institutions should still be requiring students to complete remedial education.
“If we cannot find a model of remediation that helps students, we need to reduce the number of students” taking remediation courses or remove courses entirely, Kane added.
“Achieving significant improvements in the number of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential will require identifying and clearing other barriers to college completion,” the researchers wrote.
Placing remediation back into high school, for example, reduces expenditures for remediation at the community college level, which can, in turn, allow higher education leaders to find better ways to enhance other student support services, the researchers suggested.
CEPR researchers pointed to the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) and Georgia State University as models for institutions to enhance their support for students who may be academically at-risk. The two institutions’ student support approaches include ongoing and comprehensive advising, tutoring and financial support, for instance, or outreach to students in the summer, the offering of “meta-majors” and redesigned introductory math courses, respectively.
Dr. Angela Boatman, assistant professor of public policy and higher education Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and a study author, said it would be interesting to follow-up with teachers on the study’s findings, as teachers can play various roles in remediation efforts.
Altogether, the study’s researchers encouraged educators and administrators to reconsider the model of remediation by testing and tracking innovative ideas with data to substantially raise college completion rates.
“The importance of understanding the impacts of those [remediation efforts] is paramount,” Boatman said.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.