Measure Would End No-Credit Remedial Classes At Colleges
Supporters Blame Classes For Stalling Students' Progress To Earning A Degree; Many Don't
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
March 19, 2012
Raneil Smith was sitting in his first math class at Housatonic Community College when he recalls saying to a classmate, "We're finally in college doing college-level work."
That's when another classmate leaned over and said, "'No, this is remedial work. This is the stuff you should have learned already.' I was like, 'Oh, no!'"
Although he was disappointed, Smith, 20, of Bridgeport, stuck with the remedial no-credit classes two in math and one in English and two years later has enough credits to earn his associate's degree this spring. He plans to get his bachelor's degree from the University of Bridgeport and then hopes to head to law school.
Smith is atypical. Students at community colleges who take at least one remedial course are about half as likely to graduate in three or four years as students who don't. One study found that among full-time students, only 1.2 percent of those who took a remedial class when they enrolled in community college earned their associate's degree in the normal two years, and only 13 percent were able to finish the degree in four years.
Now state lawmakers have gotten behind legislation that would eliminate no-credit remedial college classes by 2014, replacing them with regular credit-bearing classes that come with "embedded" remedial support for students who need it.
"We have kids who spend years in remedial classes, paying for a class every semester, not able to take any other classes, so it really slows completion," said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who introduced the bill and is co-chairwoman of the higher education committee. "In community college, so many things get in the way, so every semester, you delay [students], you're hurting their chances. Time is the enemy."
The bill, which the higher education committee easily approved, would transform the landscape for a student who arrives unprepared for college work at a community college or a state university, allowing students to earn college credits while getting remedial help.
The bill also would require a short-term intensive "college readiness" program for students whose test scores show they are well below college-level before the start of their first semester.
Administrators for the Board of Regents for Higher Education have supported the bill, but it has drawn criticism from some in the academic community who believe that the classes with embedded support and the intensive readiness program won't be enough for some low-performing students.
"We have students who are reading at the eighth- and ninth-grade levels, who are writing incomplete sentences [and] run-ons. They have essays that don't have any internal coherence, that don't have a main idea," said Thomas Hodgkin, an English professor at Northwest Community College. "I'm not sure that can be remediated in one semester or even two semesters. I'll be honest with you, I think the legislators and the Board of Regents are a little naοve about what students are actually capable of doing."
Kevin Buterbaugh, a political science professor at Southern Connecticut State University, also criticized the bill as wrongly suggesting that "remedial education is the cause of low graduation rates," when the reason students fail to finish college is because they arrive there unprepared.
"Obviously, the [remedial] courses are not perfect, but without them we would have an even lower retention rate and more failure at the university level," Buterbaugh said.
Using Up Financial Aid
Students in remedial classes are spending a lot of their college money on classes that don't provide college credit, Bye said.
"They are taking out loans, using up their Pell grants, before they ever take a class that's moving them toward a degree," she said.
David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College and interim regents vice president for the state's 12 community colleges, agreed.
"If they are languishing in remedial courses," he said, "they could use up a substantial amount of financial aid."
Levinson said what's needed is to "develop other models" that will provide students with remedial help without draining their financial resources.
"What we are currently doing is not working," he said.
As it stands now, 70 percent of the state's community college students take at least one remedial course in their first year for no college credit.
Levinson estimates that 15 percent to 20 percent of all courses offered in the community colleges are remedial.
In the state university system, about one in five students who starts college full-time takes a remedial course in the first semester.
The process of determining which students are placed in remedial classes is also a concern, Bye said. Before entering a community college, students take a test called the "Accuplacer," but they often don't understand the stakes involved.
That was the case for Raneil Smith. He didn't know that if he didn't hit a particular score on the test, he would land in remedial classes.
The colleges have sample tests online, but many students don't know about them. Levinson noted that as with any standardized test, students who prepare are likely to do better.
The legislation also calls for eighth- and tenth-graders to receive an "early assessment" of their potential for college readiness, which would be shared with the students, parents and the child's school.
'Blocking Access To College'
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, said that some studies have shown "that if you skip remediation, you're probably better off than if you take remediation classes."
"What is successful," he said, "is what is being proposed in Connecticut: Letting students start at the college level with support."
He said rather than think of remedial work as a "prerequisite" to college work, it can be thought of as a "co-requisite."
Connecticut's proposed legislation does not specify exactly how embedded remedial support would be provided, but Jones said it could be that students with remedial needs attend class five days a week instead of three; or they could meet with a tutor, or work on targeted assignments in a computer lab.
Jones said that embedded support is new enough that it's too early to say whether it leads to higher graduation rates. But in places where it's begun to be used such as the Community College of Baltimore County and Texas State University-San Marcos research shows that students are more likely to complete the work and to succeed at the college-level subject because they are already in it.
"A lot of this is simple," Jones said. If students start in a remedial class, they often don't ever get to the college-level class.
"You are really blocking access to college" Jones said. But, he said, if you start students in a college class and provide support, their chances for success improve.
Bye notes that in her hometown, any student who wants to take an advanced placement college-level class may do so.
"If high school kids are allowed to try a college class," regardless of their qualifications, Bye said, "certainly our college kids should be allowed to try a college class."
Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, said evidence suggests that the approach proposed in Connecticut's bill having unprepared students take a regular credit-bearing course with embedded remedial support does lead to more success for these students, especially for students taking English classes.
It's better for students to be enrolled in credit-bearing classes that come with support, Jenkins said, rather than "making them go through this gantlet" of non-credit remedial classes "because so many fall by the wayside. I think that's what Connecticut is thinking, and they are right about that."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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