The Aftermath of Remedial Math

A comment from a friend about my blog (or lack of recent entries) made me realize I have not posted any of my reading summaries for quite some time.  Hope I haven’t lost all my readers.

This is a rather long summary of my most recent read of the journal article by Peter Riley Bahr titled:

The Aftermath of Remedial Math: Investigating the Low Rate of Certificate Completion among Remedial Math Students

This article describes Bahr’s investigation of student enrollment patterns before and after exit from the remedial math sequence in community colleges.  While this is more quantitative than I would like to see, or actually less qualitative, it provides lots of fodder for thought and would be a good read before the 2012 Grubb (with Gabriner) book Basic Skills Education in Community Colleges: Inside and Outside of Classrooms which explains much of why this occurs (as does the Mike Rose book described in a previous post).

He notes that the literature continues to reveal very high rates of students (2/3) entering community colleges who need remedial math assistance.  Three-quarters of those students who begin the remedial math sequence do not complete a college-level math course successfully and are very likely to leave college without a credential or transfer.  Yet, high percentages (61-70% CCC, 55-63% NELS88) of those students who drop out of the remedial math sequence continued to take courses at the community college.

Bahr notes his surprise that very few studies consider what those students, who drop out of the math sequence, are using the community college for and how we might assist a re-evaluation of goals.  He notes that most community college vocational certificates do not require college-level math.  He also suggests that “a certificate is a viable alternative credential for students who do not complete the remedial math sequence” (p. 174).  The literature he cites provides evidence of labor-market value for both short term certificates (employment) and long-term certificates (employment and earnings).  He then raises the question why 80% of those students dropping out of the math sequence depart from community college without a credential or transfer.  Are those students leaving without a college-level math competency simply “not adjusting their educational plans to account for the change in their level of math achievement and, consequently, not adjusting their course taking behavior in the after-math period” (p. 174)?

Although he also investigates whether those who exit the remedial math sequence are exhibiting long-term declining behavior in course taking, possibly explaining both failures in math competency and completion, he does not question whether this is due to a lack of engagement in college classrooms.  He considers three possible explanations for the low rate of certificate completion of remedial math sequence exiters: difficulty navigating to the alternative vocational credential (vocational course enrollment rate), declining participation in the community college (average course credit load), and declining academic performance (course success rate).

He uses two cohorts in the analysis, the NELS88 cohort and associated PETS (Postsecondary Education Transcript Study) data and a fall 2002 first-time student cohort from the California community colleges (CCC) System database  to investigate two questions:

  1. Are there differences in course-taking behavior before and after exiting the remedial math sequence?
  2. Does the remedial math sequence exit point predict after-math course taking behavior?

He found that two thirds of the students exiting the remedial math sequence continued in community colleges for an average of 3.2 additional semesters.  More importantly, 84% of those continuing students ultimately left without a credential or transfer.  In contrast, only 23% of remedial math students who achieved college-level math competency left without a credential or transfer.  He also raises the question of why students who did not achieve college-level math competency earned an additional 13 credits in the after-math period, but did not complete some short term certificate with those credits (the navigational question).

Vocational course enrollment rate or focus

As he tries to make sense of the navigational problem, he explains that the range of typical values of the proportion of vocational course credits earned for those not completing college-level math competencies increased in the after-math period except at the upper end of the before-math-exit proportion range.  In other words, if students had taken a high percentage of their coursework as vocational courses prior to taking math, the proportion of coursework that was vocational declined after exiting math.  Those who had lower proportions of vocational coursework before taking the math course increased the proportion of vocational coursework after exiting the math course.  While he does not address, or speculate from the literature, why this occurs in his analysis, he does call for future research to examine why student course taking behavior occurs at the end of the article.

Credit course load

In Bahr’s analysis of the changes in credit course load for these students, he does find a declining course-taking load trend.  While all students tended to reduce their course load in the after-math period regardless of the point at which they exited the remedial math sequence, students leaving the sequence without college-level math competencies experienced significantly higher course load declines.  Interesting enough, students with very low course credit loads prior to exiting the math sequence (six or fewer units per semester) increased their credit load after exit.

Academic performance

When looking at the impact of completing remedial math on course success, Bahr found progressively higher increases in academic performance with each step of math sequence completion.  Those who exit the sequence at basic arithmetic or Pre-Algebra, whether completing or not, experience declining academic performance at significantly higher rates in the after-math period than other exiters.  One might wonder, although Bahr does not speculate, whether this is due to the disengagement of students in the lower level math courses found by Grubb (1999, 2011, 2012).  Students exiting at the higher remedial math levels had no change in academic performance and students leaving with college-level math competencies had higher academic performance than and their pre-math enrollments.

In his discussion of the analysis, Bahr highlights the dilemma between the need for more community college completers, the very high need for remedial math assistance among entering students, and the very low rate of remedial math sequence success.  With that, high percentages of entering students are unlikely to experience the labor market benefits of a certificate or degree.  While it is likely that there will always be a fraction of incoming students that will not complete either a vocational certificate, a degree, or transfer to a university, he notes that it should not be a majority of the students that we see as it is currently.

Bahr sees three obstacles to the completion of certificates by students who do not achieve college-level math competency: a) slow progress, b) coursework not directed fully at necessary vocational coursework, and c) poor academic performance for those who exit the sequence well below college-level math.  He follows the work of Grubb (2001) suggesting the need for “unambiguous information and guidance concerning the availability and means” of completing a certificate with their limited progress in the mathematics sequence.  Bahr suggests that it may be long-term declining course taking behavior that results in a “premature exit from the sequence” (p. 196) rather than “premature exit” being the cause for declining course taking.  While he does not address whether engagement in mathematics might deter the gradual departure of students from college or whether other innovations might reduce the long-term declining course taking behavior, he does suggest that providing a clear alternative goal for students who do not achieve college-level math competencies for various interventions (i.e., student support systems, academic support systems, or financial aid) might increase student participation in completing a credential.

Bahr notes that although he did not include financial aid influences on student behavior in his study, but he adds a reference to “randomized controlled trials” research on performance-based scholarships that encourage future student participation as a contingency for receiving financial aid.  While he does not offer information into why the declining course taking behavior occurs, performance-based scholarships appear to increase both the number of credits earned and academic performance in that course work  (p. 197).

Two important concerns are developed in Bahr’s discussion of the need for future research.  The first question, although not actually stated as a question, is why we focus so much research on transfer and completion of associate degrees rather than focusing on growth in certificate completions.  He attributes some of that focus on college certificate growth as an undesirable development in much of the literature.

The second concern is that we look at persistence in and completion of college in much of our research rather than giving attention to why student behaviors change over time.  He calls for research that would help us “intervene to improve student chances of achieving positive academic outcomes” (p. 197).


Bahr, P. R. (2013). The aftermath of remedial math: Investigating the low rate of certificate completion among remedial math students.  Research in Higher Education, 54, 171-200.

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