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Rethinking 'Remedial' Classes: Instead of Helping Students Catch Up, They Hold Them Back05:08
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Roxbury Community College (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Roxbury Community College (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In an effort to help disadvantaged students through college, both public schools and state officials have identified what may seem an unlikely bogeyman: the courses designed to help struggling students prepare for college-level material.

Those catch-up courses — called "remedial" or "developmental" education — were set up with the best of intentions.

But over a decade and more, a growing chorus of voices has said that they function as an educational stoplight for many students. And they're trying to change that.

A 'Black Hole'

Carlos Santiago, the state's commissioner of higher education, has a particular passion for "remediation reform." He remembers looking at data when he first joined the Department of Higher Education in 2013.

“Twelve thousand students were placed into remediation because they didn't pass a particular exam called Accuplacer," Santiago recalled.

He said he was "horrified" by what he found two years later.

"Of those 12,000, less than 2,000 had actually completed a credit-bearing course," Santiago said. "Then I asked, 'So where are those students?' We found that 80 percent — they left. They just didn't come back to study."

That meant classes that were supposed to serve as a resource had instead turned into "quicksand" or a "brick wall" — metaphors state officials used when they talk about the old model of remediation.

J.D. LaRock, who represents community colleges on the state Board of Higher Education (BHE), prefers "black hole."

"[Students] go in. They never come out," LaRock said. "And they feel like failures."

"I asked, 'So where are those students?' We found that 80 percent -- they left. They just didn't come back to study."

Carlos Santiago, state higher ed commissioner, on students who never progressed beyond remedial coursework

The exodus prompted by remedial education can be seen as a result of its mounting costs for students. The courses cost tuition money. Students who pass them get no college credit. And they can carry a stigma of deficiency that undermines their confidence, rather than building it.

It's a very disappointing outcome for a program that Santiago said cost the public $30 million in 2013 to administer.

A New Model

Under Santiago, colleges have been allowed to experiment with new approaches to developmental education in recent years.

Many colleges have pursued what they call a 'co-requisite' model. Students who are identified as struggling enroll in college-level math and English courses, for example. But they're also asked to take an additional course at the same time — one that's designed to fill in knowledge gaps and support their college-level learning.

That model has been a success at Roxbury Community College (RCC), school leaders say.

Before, only a quarter of their students needing the most developmental education went on to pass college-level math within two years. Now, all of its students take the traditional college-level course, and two-thirds are passing it.

And like other colleges, RCC has changed its math "pathways," says its president, Valerie Roberson. Rather than asking students in need of development to take a comprehensive math class — "one-size-fits-all," Santiago called it — RCC is focusing on introducing students to the math they will need in further study and work.

"If a student is studying social science and they are taking statistics — as opposed to calculus — that makes a big difference in their ability to understand the concepts," Roberson said.

State leaders like Santiago have said that in particular, math is holding many students back. So they are now working toward a goal of having 75 percent of community college students complete a college-level math course in their first year of enrollment by the 2020-'21 academic year.

In Tuesday's BHE meeting, Santiago said the "Massachusetts model" is not to force changes upon the state's 29 public colleges and universities. Instead, allowing schools like RCC to pilot new approaches to that subject was a slow-motion first step in meeting that goal.

That experimental freedom meant a lot to Roberson, who herself once taught developmental math: "For us, it was like taking the chains away — giving us the freedom to advance."

'Lowering The Bar,' Or Not?

Of course, one way to combat the remediation problem would be to send fewer students into remedial classes. Toward that end, many educators and officials have turned their attention to Accuplacer.

National studies suggest that Accuplacer may be underestimating student readiness for the curriculum ahead of them. And Santiago said he learned a lot from one episode early in his tenure.

More than 100 students who failed the Accuplacer somehow "managed to get into a credit-bearing math course ... and they outperform[ed] those that passed," Santiago said. "If you're ingenious enough to know how to get into a credit-bearing course, when — according to Accuplacer — you shouldn't be there, I'd bet on that student to pass that course."

LaRock, for his part, called it a "terrible test" at the Tuesday BHE meeting, adding that it is "not very nuanced" for something that "results in harsh determinations for many students."

At Tuesday's meeting, the board voted unanimously to allow all schools to make placement decisions based on students' high-school grades rather than the test.

The College Board, which administers the Accuplacer, defended the test system.

Its director of media relations, Maria Alcon-Heraux, said Accuplacer is "valid and proven to have strong reliability." She added that a new version of the test has just been released, and that they recommend colleges use "multiple factors" as they place students.

"If, say, a third of the class is under-prepared... it's human nature for an instructor to slow down."

Michael Winders, chair of the mathematics department at Worcester State University

A test-based approach to student placement still has some defenders in Massachusetts, too.

Michael Winders, the chair of the math department at Worcester State University, warned against using cumulative GPA alone to determine what students can take.

"It's conceivable that a student could have a 2.7 GPA" — the cutoff for students to avoid developmental extras — "and have failed or gotten D's in all their math classes," Winders said.

"You really have no idea of the entry-level skills that students bring," he added.

When students are placed incorrectly, Winders said, it travels with unintended consequences for all parties.

"If, say, a third of the class is under-prepared," he said, "it's human nature for an instructor to slow down. And if you're not covering as much material as you need to, then those students that are placed properly, they're gonna be adversely affected."

Winders said Worcester State has pursued its own kind of "remediation reform:" still using tests, but hiring a full-time professor to assess students' goals and prepare them for those tests, as well as coach those who don't pass through a separate course.

Santiago was clear that all colleges are free to teach developmental education as they see fit. But he defended the move away from Accuplacer as justified by the data: "I don't see this as lowering the bar. I see this as helping students perform even at higher levels."

What's Next?

One thing that all parties emphasized is the importance of student support in the next generation of developmental education.

Roberson said that she recognized that element when she served as a developmental-math teacher early in her career. She herself had struggled with math. "So I'd start classes by telling my students, 'I never learned my timetables — but I got all the way through calculus. And you can find a way to make math work for you,' " Roberson said.

The state made clear that they will make other changes designed to help disadvantaged students thrive in public colleges, including a commitment to early college in urban high schools and stepping up support for the 'co-requisite model.'

And other community-college educators hope teachers can participate in the rethinking — including Melissa Winchell, who has taught at Bridgewater State University and Massasoit Community College.

"The past mindset has been, frankly, reflected in the word 'remedial,' right?," Winchell said. "It implies that I, as a teacher, have something that they, as students, lack. That's a dynamic that we want to try to flip."

This segment aired on December 14, 2018.

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Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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