RALEIGH — A Senate bill aimed at reducing the need for remedial education courses at community colleges would intervene too late in a high school student’s career to have a broad impact on college performance, says a scholar based at Appalachian State University who focuses on student development.
The plan also would disperse responsibilities for “coaching up” unprepared students while failing to address other factors that are linked to poor college performance by some high school graduates, says Hunter Boylan, an Appalachian State University education professor who directs the National Center for Developmental Education. Boylan says Senate Bill 561, which passed the Senate in April by a 48-0 vote, is bad policy.
Under S.B. 561, high-school seniors would use a curriculum developed by the colleges while letting them do their catch-up work at their high schools.
“They have drastically oversimplified the issue of students who need remediation. First of all, students don’t just suddenly appear in their junior year underprepared. If they’re underprepared this is something that is cumulative, that started between first grade and 10th grade, and has continued,” Boylan said.
But state Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, a primary sponsor of the bill, said the issue can’t be ignored, as 41 percent of recent high school graduates had to take remedial math and 36 percent had to take remedial reading and English when they enrolled in community colleges.
“In the 2013-14 school year the state did not meet ACT benchmarks in English, math, reading, science, or writing. Research also shows that students who enter the college underprepared and required remediation are much less likely to graduate, and many frequently do not enroll in a college credit-bearing class,” Barefoot said during Senate Education Committee debate on April 28.
“In today’s work force the skills gap is growing, not shrinking. It is more important than ever that when our students graduate from high school they are proficient in math and reading,” Barefoot said.
The bill directs the State Board of Community Colleges to work with the State Board of Education to develop a program allowing high school seniors with low ACT scores to replace their required fourth-year math, English, and reading courses with remedial classes.
Currently, remedial classes are given at community colleges and students do not earn college credit for completing them. Students taking the proposed courses in high school would earn college credit, Barefoot said.
A similar program in Tennessee called Tennessee SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support) has been under way for a couple of years, and “has resulted in 70 percent of the high school graduates now being ready to enter the community college and start with degree-earning courses,” Barefoot said.
“Are we logistically doing it right?” Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, asked Barefoot. “Should it be the State Board of Community Colleges coming into the public schools, or the public schools soliciting the community colleges?”
Barefoot said high school teachers will be teaching the remedial modules, and the community colleges will oversee it. The bill “doesn’t specifically describe that relationship,” but directs the community colleges and schools to work that out.
“Who receives the [daily enrollment] money, the public school, the community college, both?” asked Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus.
“Because the teachers are employed by the public schools, that money will go to the schools. Now the question that you may have or I may have is who’s going to pay the community colleges to oversee this,” said Education Committee chairman Jerry Tillman, R-Randolph.
The bill directs the State Board of Community Colleges and State Board of Education to report back to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee in January with recommendations to those unresolved issues, Barefoot said.
“We are supportive of this legislation. We are proud of the fact that we’ve been able to make a lot of collective progress on remediation in recent years, but we think this will help us take an important step forward,” said Scott Ralls, president of the community college system. “We have more to do.”
“We certainly support the bill. We’ve been working with the community college on this issue now for a couple of years,” said Rebecca Garland, deputy state superintendent of the Department of Public Instruction. “We do not want to continue to send students that are not prepared.”
Boylan, who serves on the advisory board of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, told Carolina Journal “our research does not support, nor do we recommend, the elimination of remedial courses. … We need to take what we have and improve it” at the community college level.
It costs less to perform remediation at community colleges because the adjunct professors teaching those classes are paid significantly less than high school teachers, Boylan said.
“The legislature has made a decision inadvertently that ultimately will cost them more money in an effort to control costs,” while piling new duties on overworked teachers, Boylan said.
Rather than imposing a wholesale conversion of remedial courses, “the smart thing to do would be to field test it with a small number of high schools and community colleges,” and proceed based on outcomes, Boylan said.
“I think we’re treating students as a kind of monolithic entity here, like the only thing that counts is how much math they know, or how much English,” Boylan said.
“In fact they’re much more complex than simply somebody who doesn’t understand advanced math,” he said. “They’re also people who are adults with child-rearing responsibilities, who are trying to make ends meet, who are dealing with family crises, who are dealing with health issues, who are dealing with their own emotional and psychological issues, and this bill doesn’t do anything about that.”
Boylan said poor K-12 preparation is only one factor researchers have found is highly associated with students who don’t complete college. Others include students who are members of racial minorities, come from a low-income household, or are one of the first generation in their families to attend college.
“Of all those factors this legislation deals with only one [preparation], and it doesn’t deal with that particularly well,” Boylan said.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.
Editor’s note: This story was edited after initial publication.