Some remedial math classes unnecessary at community colleges, study says

05/07/2013 8:00 AM

05/08/2013 3:35 PM

Many students are 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 reduce the high numbers of students who must 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.

Remedial classes , widely called developmental education, 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 were 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 training 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, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington.

Some other findings:

– Many students don’t have a good command of elementary and middle-school math, which is used in many first-year community college classes.

– Some of the math they do need, such as complex measurement, generally isn’t taught in high schools.

– Community college 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.

The research 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 chose the colleges within those states at random, Tucker said. He said he’d agreed not to name them.

Scott Ralls, the president of the North Carolina community college system, said the report “seems entirely consistent with what we have found.”

College instructors in North Carolina have looked at what students need to know in math to succeed in classes toward degrees or certificates. It’s not the same in all programs, Ralls said.

“There are some fields of study where calculus is extremely important, but in most areas of study it’s not,” he said. “Everybody needs math, but not everybody needs the same math track.”

The state’s math placement test has been revised to better reflect what students in different programs need to be able to do, Ralls said. North Carolina also is taking steps to improve the way it aligns high school classes with community college requirements.

Another innovation developed at one of the state’s colleges might help students nationwide: an Internet course, known as a massive open online course, to prepare people to take the math placement tests.

The new open online course is one of the first in the nation from a community college, following a wave of free online courses from elite universities. Wake Technical Community College instructors and Udacity, an online learning company, created the course with funding from the Gates Foundation.

The recommendations in Tuesday’s report from the National Center on Education and the Economy generally are in line with the Common Core State Standards. Forty-five states have adopted this new outline of what students should learn in math and English in each grade through high school.

The center recommended that the United States improve high school education first, then raise the bar at community colleges.

“It’s pretty obvious looking at the data we have that the expectations in the community colleges are so abysmally low because the kids coming into these colleges can’t do much more than what they ask of them,” Tucker said.

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