Recommendations for Improving Math Placement and Promoting Students’ Success in STEM

Call to Action recommendations are geared toward decreasing the existing racial and income gaps seen in students aspiring to pursue STEM education and careers


BOSTON (June 2, 2015) - To ensure that community college and four-year college students interested in STEM jobs enter and complete the math courses they need, Jobs for the FutureThe Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Achieving the Dream have released a Call to Action for states and colleges to revise their math placement policies, processes, and supports.

The Call to Action was created based on the nation needing more students prepared for STEM jobs, particularly low-income students and students of color, who remain highly underrepresented in STEM professions. The goal of the Call to Action is to ensure that college placement policies and processes work to increase student success in mathematics and attainment of STEM credentials. 

The report offers six recommendations designed to change how educators approach student math placements for math pathways.

1. Begin the placement support process early to ensure entering students are ready for college-level math.
2. Use multiple factors to determine whether students should be placed into developmental courses and which developmental or gateway courses are most appropriate. 
3. Require test makers to align placement tests with differentiated math pathways and improve their predictive value. 
4. Strengthen the role of student supports—especially advising—in the placement process.
5. Prioritize student academic and career goals in the placement process. In particular, keep STEM-aspiring students on STEM pathways.
6. Create a bridging mechanism from non-algebra pathways into algebra pathways.

These recommendations are derived from the experiences and expertise of the Cross-State STEM Workgroup. With support from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Cross-State STEM Workgroup is a group of seven states focused on identifying a policy agenda and building statewide capacity to facilitate the adoption and scale of middle-skill STEM pathways.

“STEM jobs offer a significant wage premium, but all too often low-income students and students of color are left out of STEM programs and careers. We need to ensure that all students have substantiated placement into math courses and positive experiences with the coursework in order to both encourage and strengthen students’ aspirations for STEM,” said Lara K. Couturier, Director of Postsecondary State Policy at JFF. “If we don’t take action now, we risk further undermining efforts to improve equity.” 

Nationwide, calls for changes to placement policies are proliferating. Just last week, LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education released a new report, DEGREES OF FREEDOM: Probing Math Placement Policies at California Colleges and Universities, authored by higher education policy analyst Pamela Burdman. In the report, Burdman describes the many limitations inherent in math placement exams, and asks whether those exams unfairly send the majority of community college students to remedial math courses, deterring them from completing a degree. Burdman’s report reinforces many of the Call to Action’s recommendations, including the need to incorporate high school measures into placement decisions, and take career and program interests into account when placing students.

The Call to Action recommendations draw on promising results from several differentiated math pathways models, including those supported by the Dana Center’s New Mathways Project, an evidence-based redesign of college math courses and sequences designed to successfully move students through both developmental and college-level math in no more than one year.

“Success in mathematics is a key momentum point for students, especially those in STEM programs. A growing body of evidence indicates students are much more likely to achieve this milestone through accelerated, rigorous math pathways with content that is relevant to their intended program of study. We should enable broader access to math pathways by creating a well-supported placement process that accounts for students’ goals, prior academic experiences, attitudes, as well as skills in different mathematical content areas,” said Jenna Cullinane, Strategic Policy Lead for Higher Education at the Dana Center. 

The full Call to Action is available here.



Binoli Dua, Jobs for the Future
Phone: 202.630.4043


Merry Bateman, Charles A. Dana Center 
Phone: 512.232.6003  

Lynn Reddy, Achieving the Dream
Phone: 301.520.9940 

Achieving the Dream (ATD) leads a growing network of more than 300 community colleges committed to helping their students, particularly low-income students and students of color, achieve their goals for academic success, personal growth, and economic opportunity. ATD is making progress in closing equity gaps and accelerating student success through a unique change process that builds each college’s institutional capacities in seven essential areas. ATD, along with nearly 75 experienced coaches and advisors, works closely with Network colleges in 45 states and the District of Columbia to reach more than 4 million community college students. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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