TAMPA — At first glance, it makes perfect sense in the college registration process: Place students who don’t perform at college levels in remedial courses to get them up to speed before they dive into the tough stuff.
There’s just one problem with that traditional strategy. It doesn’t work.
Citing dismal success rates, the Florida Legislature this spring shook up the world of developmental education, prohibiting state colleges from giving most students placement tests then enrolling the underperformers in noncredit prep classes.
Local colleges are now scrambling to serve that population.
“We’re looking at new strategies,” said Robert Hervey, program manager for developmental math at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry campus. “It’s caused us to do a complete overhaul. Some of them we’re excited about, some of them not so much. We think there’s some good things that can happen in the process.”
The change stems from evidence cited by think tanks and known for some time by college administrators that those who enroll in remedial coursework overwhelmingly fail to complete their education.
“Remediation in Florida was not an entrance ramp to success, it was an exit ramp to failure,” said state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart who pushed the legislation. “If you think about it, it makes sense; you’re asking these students to come to class, study, work hard for a semester, and the reward for that is to say, ‘Congratulations, you now have the opportunity to take a real college course.’”
According to Complete College America, a Washington think tank whose mission is to increase the number of Americans with career certification or college degrees, more than 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those entering four-year schools are placed in remedial classes.
Nearly 4 in 10 of those students never complete those classes. Fewer than 1 in 10 students who start in remediation graduate from community colleges within three years, and a little more than one-third complete a bachelor’s degree in six years.
“It was just a completely broken system,” Negron said.
The legislation specifies that by fall 2014, two groups of students no longer can be required to take common placement tests or enroll in remedial courses: those who entered ninth grade in a Florida public school in 2003-04 or later and who earned a standard diploma, and active duty members of the armed forces.
“We’re saying, ‘You graduated from high school, you have a diploma, now we’re going to treat you like a college student,’” Negron said.
Students who are not among those exempted — those who have attended private schools, out-of-state or foreign schools or earned an equivalency diploma — still go through the traditional remediation process.
The legislation doesn’t affect big state schools such as the University of South Florida, which can be very selective about whom they admit.
State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa,, opposed the legislation this spring. She said it is “ridiculous” to think that every Florida high school student has been prepared equally.
“To do away with remediation creates a major barrier to the furtherance of the education of kids who need it,” Joyner said. “It’s a sink-or-swim thing. You need some help, but when they put you in a class with everybody else and you fail and you fail and you fail, it hinders your ability to move forward.”
Juan Restropo, a senior architecture major at HCC, also sees value in the traditional remediation model. He took a refresher composition course that he said was a big help.
“Why would they do that now?” Restropo said. “Some of those classes are necessary. There’s students that need those types of classes to succeed in college.”
The legislation states that students may still request placement tests and may enroll in preparatory coursework. But administrators say leaving the decision up to students creates problems.
“Students don’t do ‘optional.’ That’s a fact,” said HCC’s Hervey.
Restropo admits as much. “If you have the chance to take the (regular) class, you’re not going to take the no-credit class,” he said.
Local colleges are rushing alternatives into place. Instead of “remedial” or “preparatory” classes, they are creating “developmental education” units. At St. Petersburg College and HCC, administrators are reshaping what had been standard semester-long remedial classes as sessions that are modularized, accelerated or compressed.
For example, rather than taking a standard 16-week remedial math class, someone struggling with fractions or factoring polynomial equations could take shorter modules focusing exclusively on individual subjects.
In some cases, particularly composition or reading classes, a “co-requisite” course can be taken alongside the for-credit class, perhaps even taught by the same teacher.
There also are massive open online courses available or coming online soon.
SPC Mathematics Dean Jimmy Chang said advisers will offer enrollees a sample of the types of questions they would be expected to handle in a for-credit course. Then, on the first day of class, students will be encouraged to take an initial assessment.
“Hopefully, that will give students two sets of information for them to fully determine whether or not they are ready for that class,” Chang said. “If they think that they are, great. If they decide, ‘Wait, I really need to take a step back,’ we will work with them at the departmental level to make sure they are in the right place.”
HCC already displays sample math questions on its website, encouraging potential students to enroll in the necessary developmental courses.
The local colleges are rolling out early programs this spring.
Administrators say they already are seeing signs that are making them nervous. SPC President Bill Law told faculty members at a recent meeting that some students delayed enrollment so they can skip remedial coursework.
Jim Wysong, dean of associate arts in math and science at HCC, said the percentage of students enrolling in prep math courses in the spring is down and the number in for-credit algebra is up.
“The feeling is that moving them in quicker will increase the chance that they’ll ultimately graduate,” Wysong said. “It’ll remain to be seen whether that will actually work, but we’re going to keep an open mind about it.”