College & Workforce Readiness

‘Transition’ Class Boosted College Credits But Not Learning

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 13, 2018 5 min read
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College remediation is a big, expensive deal.

More than two-thirds of students in two-year colleges take a remedial class at some point after enrolling, and about 40 percent of those in four-year courses do, too. The courses are costly for students who pay for them, especially since they don’t get credits for doing so. And finally, advocates fiercely debate whether the classes do anything to better prepare students—or whether they’re just a big roadblock to a degree.

A few years back, Tennessee began trying out a novel solution to some of those problems: a transition course in senior year, in which high school students could master the math skills colleges require—and then directly enroll in credit-bearing classes, rather than remedial ones.

The idea of transition courses has since caught on among states eager to save students—and taxpayers—cash. Now, the first large-scale study of Tennessee’s initiative finds some good news for the program but also raises questions about its underlying purpose. On the one hand, the study finds that the initiative did help participating students enroll directly into college math and to earn a few more credits compared with those students who didn’t take the class. But the new course did not seem to boost students’ actual math knowledge.

In all, the findings led the researchers spearheading the project to ponder whether higher education’s entire approach to college remediation needs a serious rethink. High school transition classes may be a good first step, but perhaps remediation needs to begin earlier in students’ high school trajectories or coupled with a more intensive menu of services, they concluded.

“Whether it’s in school or in college, we need to identify a more effective model of remediation,” said Thomas Kane, the Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher who co-led the research team. “We need to commit to piloting and testing different models, perhaps a more intensive model, perhaps moving remediation earlier in high school.”

Context of Reform

The study was conducted jointly by the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard and the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee.

Since its debut, more than 57,000 students have enrolled in Tennessee’s math transition class, called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS. Begun in 2011 at Chattanooga State Community College, it has since expanded to high schools throughout the state.

SAILS math uses a blended education format, in which students proceed at their own pace through computer-based modules, including homework, assignments, and quizzes. Nearly 90 percent of students enrolled in SAILS completed it by the end of the 2017-18 school year, according to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The program’s evolution has also paralleled a decline in the number of entering community-college students needing remediation.

The new Harvard-Vanderbilt research matters for several reasons.

First, there is not much research on what students learn in developmental education. Most studies focus on those courses’ effects on enrollment and completion rates.

Second, transition courses like SAILS are only now starting to get a good look from education researchers. The few studies of them so far find generally small effects, some positive and some negative, noted Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“The transition courses make total sense. Why wouldn’t you want students to graduate ready for college? But of the research results we’ve seen so far, the outcomes haven’t been headline-making,” Barnett said. “There are still a lot more people doing transition courses than there were even a few years ago, and there’s a lot of momentum about the idea of using 12th grade to do this kind of thing. The question is, how can we do it well?”

The idea has indeed taken off among states, as Education Week reported a few years back. California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and West Virginia all offer variations on the theme. It has also spawned efforts to develop some shared curricula. The Southern Regional Education Board has crafted model math and literacy transition courses for states and districts to adopt.

The Harvard and Vanderbilt team used several methods to gauge the effect of SAILS. First, because the program expanded each year from 2012-13 through 2015-16, the researchers were able to compare outcomes for students in SAILS schools with those in schools that hadn’t yet implemented it. To do that, they took advantage of the program’s cutoff score for participation.

Students who received a score on the ACT college-entrance test below 19 were recommended to enroll in SAILS. To make up a sort of natural control group, the researchers compared them with students who just passed the ACT threshold, the next best thing to having a random-assignment study.

More Credits, More Learning?

Finally, for a subset of high school seniors, the researchers gave a modified version of the ACT math exam to compare how students enrolled in SAILS did in relation to those who took some other math course that year.

In their first year in community college, participants’ enrollment in a credit-bearing college math class, as opposed to a remedial course, did increase by 29 percentage points, and roughly half those students passed that course. By their second year, the students had taken 4.5 additional credits (about a course and a half) compared with students in high schools without SAILS.

That said, the increases weren’t enough to change the proportion of students completing an associate degree or certificate within two years.

SAILS also improved students’ attitudes about math’s usefulness and their preparation in math.

Yet it did not noticeably boost performance on the math test.

A shift in policy might have affected those findings, too. By 2014, Tennessee had moved to allow college students to take college remediation alongside credit-bearing courses—what’s known as “co-requisite classes"—and that effectively undercut some of the appeal of SAILS.

SAILS has won numerous awards since its rollout, and it wasn’t clear whether the findings would prompt changes to the initiative.

“We appreciate the analysis undertaken on the program, and as we conduct our review of the study, it’s important to remember this was a targeted solution developed and implemented for Tennessee, and SAILS has truly surpassed all expectations,” said Mike Krause, the executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “The return on investment for our students has been seismic, saving both credit hours and tuition dollars by avoiding math remediation.”

Funding for the research came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as ‘Transition’ Class Boosts College Credits But Not Learning


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