Opinion: Daily Journal

Community College Remediation Rate Drops, Still Stands at 63 Percent

The N.C. Community College System recently released its annual Developmental Enrollment of High School Graduates report. The 2012-13 report provides English, reading, and math remediation rates for students who graduated from a North Carolina high school in 2012.

The overall remediation rate, that is, the percentage of students who took one or more developmental (remedial) courses, dropped to 63 percent this year, despite a nearly 800-student increase from the prior year. Even so, it is still considerably higher than five years ago, when the rate was 57 percent.

Moreover, the rates for individual developmental courses fell across the board. The percentage of students enrolled in Developmental English, for example, fell from 48 percent in 2012 to 37 percent in 2013. Likewise, Developmental Reading had an 8-percentage-point drop from one year to the next. Developmental Math had the most impressive enrollment decline: a 16-percentage-point drop between 2012 and 2013.

Despite these improvements, the overall remediation rate barely budged.

We do not know what accounts for changes in individual developmental course rates or the remediation rate generally. I have argued that the remediation rate is an indicator of the relative quality of high school graduates. Others suggest that remediation rates are high because community colleges have low admissions standards or inappropriate student placement policies. Still others blame the economy and other external factors. If you ask me, this would be an ideal doctoral dissertation project.

Unfortunately, we will not be able to compare next year’s rates with those published previously. Earlier this year, the N.C. Community College System approved a “multiple measures” policy that will change the way community colleges place students in developmental courses. The new policy goes into effect during the 2013 fall semester.

The first measure considered by community college admissions and advisory staff will be grade point average. A recent high school graduate who earns a GPA equal to or greater than 2.6 will be considered “college-ready.” He will be able to enroll in college-level courses upon entry to community college.

If the student does not meet the GPA standard, ACT or SAT scores can be consulted. Students who score a 20 on ACT Reading, an 18 on ACT English, or a 22 on ACT Math will be considered ready for college-level courses in those subjects. It is a reasonably high standard. All three require the student to exceed state average scores. Last year, North Carolina’s ACT averages for graduating seniors were 18.8 in reading, 17.1 in English, and 19.6 in math.

Otherwise, students must reach a minimum score of 500 on the writing, reading, or math sections of the SAT test to avoid remedial courses in those subjects. Last year’s average writing score for North Carolina was 478, and the statewide average reading score was 495. The state’s average math score was 506. In other words, avoiding remedial courses requires graduating seniors to have SAT scores that exceed statewide averages in reading and far exceed the writing score. The math requirement is somewhat lenient in terms of the state average.

If neither the GPA nor the college admission test requirements are met (or if the student does not have a GPA or test scores available), the student must take a diagnostic placement test.

Many suspect that remediation rates will decline in the years following the implementation of the new placement policy. Some state education officials are counting on a rate drop, as they have become uncomfortable answering questions about years of embarrassingly high remediation rates. After all, North Carolina’s community college remediation rates undermine their claim that our public schools are improving.

We will not know if the new policy is a success or failure until we obtain three or four years of persistence, retention, transfer, and graduation rates for community colleges throughout the state. Students who are exempted from developmental courses may find that they are ill-prepared for college-level work and require additional time to complete their course of study. Hopefully, this will not be the case.

Dr. Terry Stoops (@TerryStoops) is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.