COVER STORY: Reimagining Remediation
Some of Florida’s community colleges now offer bachelor’s degrees in specific career fields.
C O V E R S T O R Y
Florida Allowing Students To Make Developmental Decisions
By Paul Bradley
Each and every year since the 1970s, tens of thousands of Florida community college students began their post-secondary academic careers in a remedial education class in math, reading or writing.
The 28 community colleges around the state — now called state colleges, because many now offer four-year degrees — are a primary point of access to higher education in Florida. About 65 percent of the state’s high school graduates pursuing postsecondary education start at a community college, and 82 percent of freshman and sophomore minority students in Florida public higher education attend a community college.
Students flocking to the colleges historically took high-stakes, mandatory placement tests prior to admission. Underperformers were enrolled in noncredit courses to burnish their skills and get them up to speed before plunging into college-level work. More than half of Florida community college students land in one or more remedial class. It happened every year.
But not this year, for in 2014 Florida is embarking on what could be called a grand educational experiment which has shaken up the world of remedial education and is being watched by community college educators from around the country.
Citing poor completion rates, the Florida state legislature last summer passed a sweeping reform measure. It overwhelmingly approved legislation prohibiting community colleges from requiring students to take placement tests. Nor can students be forced to take a remedial course, though they can be encouraged to do so. Rather, it will be up to the students themselves to assess their own abilities and decide whether to enroll in a remedial course.
“It’s a very abrupt change,” said Craig Johnson, vice president of academic affairs at Hillsborough Community College.
The new rules have left community colleges scrambling to overhaul remedial education offerings. They are redesigning curriculum and ramping up student advising — combing through high school transcripts and standardized test scores and having honest, not-always-pleasant conversations with students about their academic strengths and weaknesses.
“We’re hoping students will heed the advice we’re giving them,” Johnson said.
The new law, in fact, has made the role of academic counselors critically important. The same law which all but eliminates remedial courses also created eight “meta-majors” at community colleges designed to steer students along a defined path toward a degree. Each meta-major is a broad category that includes multiple majors, each of those degrees sharing a foundation of common courses.
The idea is to make it clear to students which courses are needed for a degree. The hope is that students will begin college more knowledgeable about academic programs and career options. It will be up to counselors to explain the new system to students as well as talk to them about whether remediation is an advisable path.
That remedial education is in need of reform seems beyond all doubt. According to Complete College America, a Washington-based think tank and a leading proponent of overhauling remedial education, more than 50 percent of all community college students are placed into one or more remedial classes. Only 22 percent complete the remedial sequence and associated college-level courses within two years. Just 9.5 percent graduate within three years.
Several states are stepping up efforts to revamp remedial education and speed a student’s path through college.
In Indiana, lawmakers approved a bill directing high schools to identify students in need of remedial work and help them before they leave high school. Connecticut is on a path toward abolishing traditional remedial education and giving students extra help as they take credit-bearing courses. Texas has required colleges to base remedial courses on best practices and allowed colleges to waive tuition for remedial courses. In all, more than 30 states are working with Complete College America to improve remedial education.
But no state has gone as far or as fast as Florida, which has one of the country’s largest community college system. Critics worry that the reforms go too far and will leave many students unprepared for college level work. Students who need minimal help can benefit from streamlined remedial courses, critics say, but those who are further behind can be set on a path to failure.
“The fact remains that many students still graduate (high school) without the educational chops to handle college coursework,” said an editorial in The Gainesville Sun. “Empowering students to control choices in their schooling is a laudable goal, but research shows that that students often overestimate their abilities. Giving them the choice to skip remedial courses likely means most will end up in courses for which they’re unprepared.”
That’s what worries Joanne Bashford, vice president for developmental education at Broward College. So far, she said, students seem willing to admit their academic shortcomings in math, long recognized as a critical barrier for community college students. Enrollment in developmental math classes this spring is about the same as a year ago as students voluntarily enroll in remedial courses.
“Students know what they don’t know,” she said. “You can either do the problem or you can’t.”
But students seem more reluctant to acknowledge that they need help with reading and writing. These students may be able to read an online newspaper and write a high school essay, but their comprehension skills might not be enough to do college level work. Colleges like Broward report that enrollment in remedial reading and writing courses is down significantly compared to previous years.
That has educators like Bashford concerned about a “spillover effect,” with students struggling in classes such as history or psychology that use college-level textbooks requiring college-level reading skills.
“I don’t know that students know what’s going to hit them,” she said. “That worries me some. We’ll be watching that closely.”
Even critics of the new law concede that it has positive aspects. Colleges no longer will rely solely on a standardized test to make placement decisions, a welcome relief for students who are poor test-takers or scored just a few points away from being declared proficient and avoiding remedial classes. Colleges are getting a fuller picture of a student’s ability.
“I was happy to see that these placements will no longer be tied to a test,” said Ginger Pedersen, dean for curriculum and educational technology at Palm Beach State College. “Looking at a transcript is a much better model. It’s a much richer data set to use.”
It has also prodded colleges to accelerate reforms they already had designed. At Broward College, for example, educators are reshaping semester-long remedial courses into shorter, modular units. A student struggling with fractions could take a shorter course focusing on that instead of a semester-long algebra course.
Colleges have redesigned their student intake system and have encouraged students to prepare for math placements tests by taking a refresher course prior to testing.
Broward is also offering a MOOC – a massive online open course – allowing students to study at their own pace. Students are being encouraged to take an initial assessment to identify their weaknesses and then take the instructional modules that they most need. It is open to any student.
In addition, students will get a sample of the types of questions they would encounter in a full-blown college course, allowing them a glimpse at their own abilities.
Still, educators worry that students will opt not to enroll in remedial education.
“One thing we know,” said Bashford, “is students don’t do optional.”