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Improving Developmental and College-Level Mathematics: Prominent Reforms and the Need to Address Equity

Improving Developmental and College-Level Mathematics: Prominent Reforms and the Need to Address Equity

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition that the traditional system of college mathematics remediation that relies on high-stakes placement tests and prerequisite, multilevel course sequences is associated with lowered chances of students completing developmental requirements and increased rates of student attrition. This recognition has led to nationwide reform efforts that strive to alter the structure and curricula of remedial math courses. However, these broad-based reforms have been insufficient in eliminating inequities in developmental placement and completion between students of color and other underserved students and their more advantaged peers.

Informed by relevant research literature, this paper argues that the majority of reforms to developmental math education seek to remedy general barriers to student progress but are not typically designed to address equity gaps and, perhaps unsurprisingly, do little to reduce them. The authors examine issues of concern present in traditional developmental math education and how existing reforms—including assessment and placement reforms, acceleration reforms, contextualization reforms, and curricular and pedagogic reforms—aim to address these issues, noting if they are associated with reductions in equity gaps. The authors also explore the potential for targeted reforms in developmental math to more effectively address the factors that contribute to inequities in student outcomes, factors such as stereotype threat, math anxiety, instructor bias, and tracking. The paper concludes with recommendations for colleges:

  • create and use developmental and college-level math curriculum and instruction that affirms students’ math ability and improves their confidence,
  • engage in student-centered instructional practices that encourage conceptual understanding of math and give students a sense of ownership over their own learning,
  • provide professional development to faculty to help identify and remediate instructor biases,
  • develop policies and practices that prevent the tracking of underserved students into less rigorous math courses and/or developmental education, and, similarly,
  • consider ways to increase access to STEM courses for Black and Latinx students.

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