Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, says he noticed a problem with remedial education in the state’s community colleges: “Too few students were coming out the other end.”
He was referring to the remarkably low success rate of community college students required to take remedial classes. Because of the low success rate, Ralls and system leaders are revamping how the colleges address remedial education, in part by making it easier to proceed directly to college level courses.
Most degree-seeking students in the NCCCS are required to take remedial classes. According to system officials, 69 percent of recent high school graduates who enrolled in a community college last year were put in at least one remedial class.
Not many of those are making it to graduation.
For example, only 8 percent of students who are placed in the lowest-level remedial (also called “developmental”) math classes successfully made it to college-level math classes. That may be a reason community college graduation rates are typically between 10 and 20 percent.
One of the problems, according to Ralls, is that placement tests are putting students in the wrong classes.
Ralls said that many college leaders complained about the ineffectiveness of the tests, which were designed primarily to be cheap and quick.
“We just assumed we were always doing the right thing,” Ralls said. But, “All of a sudden, the data smacked us right in the face and said, ‘No, that’s not right.’”
The data Ralls referenced included a study done by the Columbia University Teachers College for the NCCCS. Researchers estimated that current tests place 30 percent of students erroneously.
In late February, the State Board of Community Colleges voted to change the way NCCCS implements remedial education in several ways.
The changes, set for fall 2015, are intended to help students either bypass remedial classes or work through them more quickly.
The idea is that many students take remedial classes that they don’t really need. Faced with several semesters of classes covering material they already studied, they drop out before finishing.
One change is that the classes will be shortened, divided into smaller segments so that students can address specific deficiencies more quickly. For example, students needing remedial math will take up to eight one-credit hour classes that last four weeks each (one credit-hour for scheduling purposes, not credit toward a degree). Previously, students took semester-long noncredit courses.
Another change is controversial, perhaps even counterintuitive: The community colleges intend to help students succeed in school by making it easier for them to be placed in more difficult, college level classes.
Rather than requiring all degree-seeking students to take placement tests, students who graduated from high school less than five years ago can use either their GPA or SAT or ACT scores to be placed directly into college-level classes. System leaders believe, based on research, that these measures give a more accurate picture of a student’s potential for success, since they reflect more skills than the content knowledge measured by the placement tests.
The “Multiple Measures” placement process — the new system being implemented — will apply to all degree-seeking students (that is, everyone except those taking “continuing education” classes, which don’t lead to a degree). The process will be hierarchical:
• If a student’s high school GPA is greater than or equal to 2.6, he or she can enroll in college-level classes.
• If it is below 2.6 but the student scored high enough on the SAT or ACT, he or she can enroll in college-level classes.
• If the GPA, SAT, and ACT scores are not high enough, then the student will have to take a placement test.
It will, however, be a new one developed by the College Board, which system officials believe will be more accurate.
Duke Cheston is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org).