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How to Break the Cycle of Remedial College Classes

At least a third of college students start freshman year in remedial classes. A California project shows that it doesn't have to be that way.

This month, more than half of community college freshmen and at least a third of university students started college already behind. They're in at least one remedial course that does not count toward a degree, thus beginning at least four months—and sometimes years—delayed in getting the degree they enrolled to earn.

This colossal disappointment is largely avoidable. Students need not toil in remedial courses that cost precious time and money.

How do I know? The proof initially emerged with many students transferring from San Diego’s West Hills High School to their local community college. Like many of their fellow freshmen nationally, a whopping 95 percent of high school graduates from West Hills who received As and Bs in their senior English courses did not "pass" the placement test. Yet when allowed to enroll in college-level courses instead of remedial classes, 86 percent successfully completed college-level English, lost no time in their progress, and stayed on course toward earning a degree.

How could this be? San Diego’s Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District took the courageous step of trusting the work of local high school teachers and higher education faculty over the placement test.

The English Curriculum Alignment Project is an intensive and groundbreaking effort. High school teachers and college faculty teamed up to pore over years of transcript information for what is now, statewide, a 30-million student database made available through the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success. Looking at student performance over time, San Diego educators learned that students who stopped taking English courses after 10th grade needed the same level of remediation in community college as students who took advanced English courses through 12th grade.

Teachers dug deeper for the source of students' collegiate struggles. After sharing lesson plans and curricula, they learned that while teachers at both levels called it English, they were teaching entirely different things. High school teachers taught mostly literature, focusing on characters and storylines 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. This "Eureka!" moment inspired teachers at all levels to better align their expectations and content.

Collaboration between high school and higher education teachers is a significant break from standard practice and culture. Most higher education faculty haven't the foggiest idea what the current K-12 standards in their state say, much less how they connect to the knowledge and skills of the students they greet at the start of the school year. It’s not their fault; they've been kept out of that loop. 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.

Remedial courses, and the tests that place students in them, have become a black hole—sucking time, money and ambition into a vortex from which few escape. Only 24 percent of students placed in the lowest level of English remedial courses in California ever get through. It's little wonder when you consider the mismatch in what is expected and taught in K-12 and what is expected and taught in college.

This disconnect becomes particularly disturbing as the nation moves toward adopting Common Core Standards, a valiant reform effort designed to ensure that all students receive a challenging, relevant education. However, this effort is built on quicksand unless there is school-to-college collaboration around student performance and students are taught material that aligns to these new standards.

With more than 40 states signed on to adopt the Common Core Standards in 2014, now is the time to focus on the teaching and curriculum necessary to achieve what are widely agreed to be excellent standards that prepare students for success. Simply having a standard in place is no assurance that higher education and K-12 teaching are aligned to the standard and to the expectations for college-level work.

The San Diego ECAP project is an example of what is possible when faculty across K-12 and community colleges and universities use student transitional data and work together to better know and understand what students need to succeed. This solution is hiding in plain sight, appealing to the very motivations that brought teachers into their field: a zest for inquiry and unleashing student potential. Collaborating around student performance information recognizes that higher education and K-12 teachers share the same student—just at different points in their education journey.

With the high cost of college and valuable time at stake, students and our state economies simply cannot afford blind faith in standards and a one-time test that leads up to the roadblock of remedial classes.

It’s time for a serious rethink of where and how we place our trust. K-12 and higher education must trust each other and work together to align what is taught and examine student performance data to address any barriers. If we don't do this, we’re just guessing, or worse, relying on faulty indicators. That’s not right, and San Diego shows there is a better way to help students, reduce remediation, and save taxpayer funds.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Michael Oh

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