‘Transitional’ courses boost college readiness

Colleges spend nearly $7 billion a year on remedial education, according to federal data.  Eight states — and many school districts — are offering  “transitional” math and English courses to help students catch up and avoid remediation in college, reports Education Week

Seventy percent of Tennessee high school graduates place into remedial math in college. Only five percent of community college students placed in remedial math earn a two-year degree in three years.

Chattanooga State Community College developed the SAILS model, short for Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support. High school teachers and community college instructors developed a self-paced math course for low-scoring students with college aspirations. Students learn online in a school computer lab with a teacher on hand. College instructors come in once a week.

The idea is catching on, reports the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia. Twenty-five states, and districts in another 13 states, assess 11th graders’ college readiness to give them time to improve in 12th grade. More than a dozen states are planning similar programs.

The transitional curricula being offered by states and districts typically consist of a course, a set of instructional units, online tutorials, or other educational experiences offered no later than 12th grade to students considered at risk of being placed into remedial college courses, according to the Teachers College report.

These programs are designed for students who don’t quite meet college-readiness benchmarks, but who aspire to college and need some extra instruction. Students take the transitional courses during the school day, usually for high school credit with the goal of entering credit-bearing college courses upon matriculation.

Tougher Common Core standards will reveal the “huge readiness gap,” said Megan A. Root, a senior associate with the Southern Regional Education Board. The SREB is piloting math and literacy courses for struggling high school students in seven states. The curriculum is available online for free.

Core to College, backed by the Lumina Foundation, Gates Foundation and others, is funding collaboration between colleges and high schools in 12 states. As states implement Common Core standards, they’re aligning expectations and assessments, so college-prep classes really will prepare students for college demands.

Collaboration between K-12 and higher education is very important, say school district and college leaders in an edBridge survey. However only a third say they collaborate effectively.

High schools may pay for college remediation

When high school graduates need remedial classes in college, who pays? Mississippi and Maine may hold school districts responsible for the costs of teaching basic skills in community colleges, notes the Hechinger Report.

In Mississippi, more than 40 percent of community college students need remediation. Fifty percent take developmental classes at Maine community colleges.

New Hampshire, Missouri, and Oregon legislators have considered similar proposals over the last five years, but bills haven’t gotten far.

“High school students, when they get a diploma . . . they ought to be able to go to college,” said Mississippi Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. “They should not have remediation.”

Nationwide, as many as 70 percent of new community college students are placed in remedial courses, Hechinger reports.

College remediation has long been a subject of debate: It costs the states nearly $4 billion annually, and opponents say remedial courses don’t even prepare students for college level work. In Mississippi, remedial courses currently cost the same as regular classes based on credit hour, so students must foot the bill for the extra classes. Fewer than 10 percent of these students end up graduating from community colleges within three years, according to Complete College America.

These arguments have prompted more than 20 states to cut funding for remedial education. Some community colleges have started to restrict admission to students who have at least a seventh-grade proficiency level, directing them to local adult basic education classes and saving on remediation costs.

High schools and community colleges need to work together on aligning curriculum, says Kay McClenny, the director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. “Ultimately, what we need to have is not finger pointing and rock throwing across the fence of various segments of education, but really much better collaboration,” she said.

High schools are under heavy pressure to raise graduation rates. If every graduate has to be ready for college work . . . It’s not a realistic expectation. Perhaps the introduction of new, higher standards will force states to adopt a college-ready diploma and a less-rigorous diploma.

Alignment can break the remedial cycle

A majority of community college freshmen and a third of four-year students must take at least one remedial class. Aligning high school teaching with college demands can slash the need for remediation, writes Brad Phillips, president of the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, in GOOD.

In San Diego, 95 percent of  West Hills High graduates — many with A’s and B’s in English courses — flunked the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District placement test. Yet, when allowed to start in college-level classes, 86 percent passed, staying on course to a degree.

The English Curriculum Alignment Project teamed college faculty with high school teachers to evaluate student performance. San Diego educators learned that taking advanced English courses through 12th grade wasn’t preventing students from needing remediation. Finally, they had a “eureka” moment.

High school teachers taught mostly literature, focusing on characters and story lines in many classic works of fiction. Meanwhile, English faculty in the community college were teaching students about argumentation and writing clearly to inform, persuade, and describe—key skills needed to succeed at work, think critically and contribute to their community.

. . . Together, San Diego teachers developed standards-based high school lesson plans that helped students organize content and write clearly with deep understanding of genre, audience, purpose, and argument. The thoughtful blend of literary and rhetorical values in the English classroom and an emphasis on rigorous writing, reading and critical thinking skills put students on a track for success in college and career.

Only 24 percent of California students placed in the lowest level of English remedial courses make it to college-level work, Phillips writes.

 

Close the readiness gap

Working together, high school and college instructors can improve student success rates, writes Jordan E. Horowitz of the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, or Cal-PASS, in Education Week.

First, postsecondary institutions must be able to clearly state and explain what is expected of entering students. It is not enough, for example, to require a certain number of years of math, English, and other subjects; nor is it enough to require a passing grade in Algebra II. We must identify the specific knowledge students need to succeed in college-level math.

Second, we must develop longitudinal student-data systems that allow us to track students from year to year, school to school, and educational segment to segment.

Community college instructors should work with teachers from feeder high schools to analyze remediation and course failure rates, align curricula and tests and develop solutions, Horowitz writes.

In California, Cal-PASS lets all 112 community colleges and nearly all public universities share transcript and test data with more than two-thirds of K–12 districts.

The database currently holds more than 415 million records representing approximately 25 million students, with the ability to track back as far as 15 years. Without divulging student identities, Cal-PASS enables practitioners to track cohorts’ progress from kindergarten through middle school and on to college.

Teachers and college faculty from the same disciplines meet monthly in professional learning councils to diagnose strengths and weaknesses and align school and college curricula.

For example, one English council was disturbed by transition data indicating extremely high rates of their high school students were being placed into remedial postsecondary English courses that were below college level. Upon comparing curricula, faculty across the different levels of education noted that high school English is literature-based, while postsecondary English focuses on rhetoric and demands greater expository reading and writing skills. Faculty members worked across the secondary and postsecondary segments of education to infuse more nonfiction reading and writing into the high school curriculum. Standardized-test scores improved, school adequate yearly progress improved, and upon placement in college-level English when they matriculated to the local postsecondary institutions, these students passed with a C or better at a higher rate than their non-program peers.

Postsecondary institutions must “define what it means to be college-ready in a way that is actionable,” Horowitz writes.