Montana college students taking remedial math

A chart tracking the progress of Montana college students who start out in remedial math classes as they progress through college. 

For every 100 Montana college freshmen who start out in a remedial math class, only nine or 10 will succeed in graduating with a diploma.

To raise students’ chances of passing remedial math and English and successfully graduating, the Montana University System is revamping the way it teaches remedial classes, adopting a method that has helped other states make dramatic gains.

“This is a big deal,” Board of Regents Chair Paul Tuss said Friday at the regents meeting in Missoula. “We are all in on this.… This will absolutely make a difference.”

The change will affect thousands of students.

At Montana State University and the University of Montana, 21 percent of freshmen need a remedial math or English class. At the state’s other four-year campuses, it’s 47 percent. And at Montana’s two-year colleges, it’s 52 percent.

Regent Bob Nystuen said those numbers are “staggering.” The way Montana deals with the problem, Nystuen said, should have been changed a generation ago.

Under the current “prerequisite” system, freshmen who don’t score high enough on math or English tests have to take as many as three remedial classes, said Erik Rose, program manager for the Montana University System.

Students placed in remedial classes often feel discouraged, feel they’re not really in college or not meant to be there, and give up.

Fewer than half of Montana’s students placed in remedial math continue on to take the college-level math class that’s a “gateway” to many majors.

For students pursing science or technology majors, only 8.6 percent who start in remedial math ever graduate. For non-science majors, it’s only 9.7 percent. The statistics are “pretty grim,” Rose said.

But under the new “co-requisite” system, students take classes that combine remedial classes with the gateway math or English classes. They get five weeks of remedial instruction followed by 10 weeks of gateway class material. Students get additional instruction time in class, additional course hours, a self-paced computer lab and mandatory tutoring.

In Tennessee, the co-requisite system quadrupled the success of remedial students passing gateway math from 12 to 52 percent. Success in English nearly doubled from 31 percent to 61 percent.

Similar success has been seen in Georgia, West Virginia and Oklahoma colleges, Rose said. At Georgia Coastal College, only 36 percent of remedial students passed the gateway class within two years, but with the co-requisite program, 56 percent passed in the first semester.

Most Montana state campuses are trying some form of the new co-requisite strategy, Rose said. The goal now is to expand these pilot programs to have the co-requisite option statewide by the fall of 2018.

“We’re not touching the current gateway courses, the college-level content,” Rose said. “We don’t need to water down what is ‘college level.’”

At the MSU campus, Bob Mokwa, interim provost, has been leading work on the co-requisite program.

In other action Friday, the regents:

—Voted unanimously to approve MSU’s plan to award an honorary doctorate to writer and filmmaker John Heminway, whose works include the award-winning National Geographic film “Battle for the Elephants” and “Warlords of Ivory.”

—Approved MSU’s plan for a new Pollinator Health Center to improve the health of bees and other pollinators.

—Raised objections to MSU’s proposed new Western Lands and Peoples Center, saying it overlapped too much with a similar academic center at UM. The regents voted 4-3 to delay a decision until January. MSU President Waded Cruzado said she felt it was so important, the campus found $350,000 “in hard-earned research dollars” to support it.

—Voted in a unanimous and rare decision to hear a student’s appeal of a decision by the Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian. The student’s name, college and issue are all confidential. Most student challenges to the commissioner’s decisions die for lack of regent support.

—Heard Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, say he has sponsored a bill to make Pell grants for low-income students available in summer, to help students graduate faster.

Tester also told the regents that in Washington, D.C., “right now there’s a fair amount of anxiety on both sides.

“After this long and divisive election,” Tester said, “maybe Cat-Griz isn’t the top rivalry in the state anymore.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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