A Math Course That Helps Students Get Into College and Avoid Remediation

By Catherine Gewertz — April 08, 2016 3 min read
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A challenging math course taught to Los Angeles high school students is helping them enroll in college and avoid remedial classes at much higher rates than their peers, according to a new study.

The South Los Angeles Math, or SLAM, Project was created to see what would happen if high school teachers and college professors worked together to help at-risk students pass Math 109, a one-semester credit-bearing course that’s offered at California State University-Los Angeles. The idea was to draw on the expertise of instructors at both levels to reduce the high math remediation rates at Cal State L.A. (55 percent of incoming freshmen in 2014), and to help students get the skills and the credit they need to attend—and succeed in—college.

Cal State, the Los Angeles Unified school system, and College Bridge, a nonprofit that designs college-access programs, teamed up to deliver the quantitative reasoning and statistics course. Students can take the class for free during their school day, and earn concurrent high school and college credit. Passing the class is a guarantee that they can skip remedial work at Cal State L.A. College Bridge did the study of the nine-year project’s first three years, which involved 169 students in three high-poverty Los Angeles high schools.

The full report is embedded below, and a shorter version was published in the peer-reviewed CLEARvoz Journal, put out by the Center for Leadership, Equity, and Research.

Here are the key findings:

SLAM students had a 75 percent pass rate in Math 109, compared to 71 percent among college students at Cal State L.A. SLAM students had an 82 percent college matriculation rate, compared to 54 percent among their peers who didn’t take the course. Once in college, 30 percent of SLAM students required remediation in math, compared to 76 percent of their fellow students. SLAM students had a 100 percent college persistence rate, meaning that all of them returned for a second year.

Several features of the course contributed to those results, according to the College Bridge paper. One was its pairing of college and high school faculty. Other teaching approaches were tried: High school teachers taught it by themselves or in teams. Pass rates weren’t substantially different, but researchers concluded that the best approach, especially for teacher training, was to pair a high school teacher and a college professor. Students reported that they took the course more seriously that way as well.

“The interaction with an actual college professor and knowing it was a college class made me try even harder,” one student reported to College Bridge researchers.

High school teachers also reported that they didn’t feel they had sufficient command of mathematics to feel confident teaching the college course on their own, the paper said. Partnering with a college professor allowed the high school teacher to circulate in the classroom, scaffold the material for students, and give the professor a sense of how they were progressing, the paper says. The teacher-professor pairs also worked together to grade assignments, using the professor’s sense of college-level rigor, the study reports.

Another characteristic of the course that could have enhanced the outcome was that it was designed to maximize student engagement. It uses a lot of collaboration and projects to teach Math 109 the first semester, and emphasizes applied skills during the second semester, asking students to use math skills to solve community problems. Taking a page from the common core, the course emphasizes conceptual understanding of math and tenacity in solving problems.

Student selection was also found to be important: The students eligible for SLAM are “middle-of-the-road” students, not those who need intensive remediation. The pool of students from which participants were chosen had grade-point averages of 2.3 to 3.1 or had passed Algebra 2 with a C or better.

SLAM students showed a 33 percent gain in their mathematical practices skills, and reported feeling more ready for college than before they took the course. The class also seems to have offered a bracing dose of reality: Eight in 10 said the course forced them to figure out better ways to study. One-third of the students who judged themselves to be college-ready when the course began said afterward that they had underestimated how tough college classes are.

One of the guiding ideas of the SLAM Project was to make 12th grade a “shared transition zone” of collaboration between high school and college to increase college access and success. This idea is discussed in a series of papers by Jobs For the Future, advocating, among other things, that high schools and colleges work together to create and deliver courses, and that they “co-validate” the results, meaning that work from those courses is accepted as a valid proxy of college-level achievement.

SLAM Year3 Report by cgewertz

Photo: SLAM students from Santee High School. (College Bridge)

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.