WASHINGTON -- Many students are needlessly sent to remedial math classes at community colleges to learn high school math they won’t need in their first-year programs anyway, according to new research on what it takes to be successful in community college.
Colleges nationwide have been looking for ways to cut down the high numbers of students who have to take English or math classes to meet prerequisites. Colleges generally require incoming students to take placement tests in English and math, and the failure rates are high. A survey last year found that on average, 52 percent of students entering two-year colleges had to take remedial classes.
In Florida in 2010-11, 54 percent of students coming out of high school failed at least one subject on the Florida College System’s placement test, according to an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida published in December. At Miami Dade College, 63 percent of high school graduates take at least one remedial course upon enrollment.
Remedial classes don’t count toward a degree, and studies have found that many people who take them don’t end up getting degrees or job-related certificates.
The National Center on Education and the Economy, in a report Tuesday, analyzed syllabuses, college textbooks, tests, assignments and grades to see what students are supposed to be able to do in math and English — to be “college and career ready” in the lingo of the Department of Education. A key finding of the report was that the expectations for first-year students at the community colleges studied was very low, but many students still weren’t prepared to succeed in them.
The stakes are high, the report said, because if students can’t complete community college programs for jobs such as auto mechanics and police officers, or can’t use community colleges to transition to four-year degrees, they’ll have a hard time supporting a family above the poverty line.
The researchers found that students were expected to be proficient in higher-level algebra and geometry, even though most of the topics from those classes aren’t needed to succeed in many of the programs that community colleges offer.
“We concluded that even though the first year of community college doesn’t require any Algebra II and very few community college students will ever need Algebra II, many kids are being kept out of community college programs because they haven’t taken that math in high school and don’t know it. And that seems to us very unfair,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington.
Some other findings:
• Many students don’t have a good command of the elementary and middle-school math that is used in many first-year community college classes.
• Some of the math they do need, such as complex measurement, isn’t generally taught in high schools.
• Community colleges teachers don’t expect students to be able to read at the level of their textbooks and don’t assign much writing. At the same time, most high schools don’t prepare students for the technical reading and writing needed for many jobs.
Miami Dade College has been working for the past five years to reform the way it approaches remedial courses in reading, writing and math, said Lenore Rodicio, vice provost for student achievement.
The college implemented boot camps in summer 2012 to help students who initially place into developmental courses gather the skills they need to pass the placement exam. Half of the students who participated in the boot camp tested one level higher than in their initial exam, Rodicio said. About 25 percent of these students placed out of developmental courses.
The college has conducted several pilot studies to circumvent students taking unnecessary remedial courses and diminishing the time they spend in each. These reforms will be implemented full-scale for first-year students beginning fall 2013. “The key is matching the right student to the right strategy, and that’s what we are trying to do here,” Rodicio said.
The college wants to cut down the time the students spend on unnecessary topics for their future career. Instead, it will match students with the most relevant sequence of remedial classes for their area of study, she said. New legislation for the 2014 school year will allow schools to rely not only on placement exams but students’ high school GPAs and transcripts for college placement.
It’s really looking at what each individual student needs to be successful in college, Rodicio said. Some will need the remedial courses and some will need a reformed version of remedial instruction.
The research released Tuesday was conducted at seven community colleges in seven states. The National Center on Education and the Economy picked the states to be representative of the nation — rich and poor, urban and rural — and then picked the colleges within those states at random, Tucker said. He said that he had agreed not to name them.
Miami Herald writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reneeschoof