Advance to GO

(Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series on remedial education. The first can be found here.)

Several years ago, Scott Ralls determined that there were serious problems with the way North Carolina’s community colleges were handling remediation. To Ralls, who is president of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS), and to other system leaders, it seemed that many students who should be succeeding were dropping out.

“Too many of our students were coming to us after having gone through high school programs and we’re putting them right back into high school programs,” said Ralls in an interview with the Pope Center. “Too few students were coming out the other end.”

Indeed, a large majority of the students who enter North Carolina’s community colleges are required to take remedial classes. According to Cynthia Liston, the NCCCS associate vice president for policy research, 69 percent of recent high school graduates who enrolled in a North Carolina community college last year were put in at least one remedial class. 

And not many are making it to graduation. “The percentage of students who are placed into developmental courses and who successfully reach and pass first year English and math is very low,” wrote Liston in a policy brief for the NCCCS board in October. In fact, “For those at the lowest levels of developmental math,” she wrote, “only 8 percent of students successfully make it through a gateway math course.”

One of the problems, it seemed, was that the tests used to place students were putting them in the wrong classes. Ralls said that, in his talks with college leaders, many complained about the ineffectiveness of the placement tests. The tests were, after all, designed to be cheap and quick.

“We just assumed we were always doing the right thing” with regard to placement tests, Ralls said. But, “All of a sudden, the data smacked us right in the face and said, ‘No, that’s not right.’” 

The data that Ralls was referring to included a number of studies, particularly one done by the Columbia University Teachers College for the NCCCS. The Columbia study estimated that the current tests misplace 30 percent of students. 

In late February, the State Board of Community Colleges voted to change the way it implements remedial (also called “developmental”) education in several ways. The changes, which each school is required to have in place by the fall semester of 2015, are intended to make it easier for some students to bypass remedial classes or work through them more quickly. The underlying idea is that many students are placed in remedial classes that they don’t really need. Faced with the prospect of several semesters of classes covering material they have already studied, they drop out before they can make it to college-level work. 

One change is that the classes will be shortened, divided into smaller segments so that students can address specific deficiencies in a timelier manner. For example, students needing remediation in math will take up to eight 1-credit-hour classes that last four weeks each (one credit-hour for scheduling purposes, that is; no credit toward a degree will be given). Previously, students were stuck taking semester-long non-credit courses.

Another change is more controversial, and perhaps even counterintuitive: the community college system intends to help students succeed in school by making it easier for them to be placed in more difficult, college-level classes. 

Rather than requiring all degree-seeking students to take placement tests (as in the current situation), students who graduated from high school less than 5 years ago can use either their GPA or SAT or ACT scores to be placed directly into college-level classes. System leaders believe, based on available research, that these measures give a more accurate picture of a student’s potential for success, since they reflect a broader skill set than the mere content knowledge measured by the placement tests.

The “Multiple Measures” placement process—the new system being implemented—will apply to all degree-seeking students (that is, everyone except those taking “continuing education” classes, which don’t lead to a degree).  The process will be hierarchical: If a student’s high school GPA is greater than or equal to 2.6, he or she can enroll in college-level classes. If it is below 2.6 and the student scored high enough on the SAT or ACT, he or she can enroll in college-level classes. If neither the GPA nor SAT nor ACT scores are high enough, then the student will have to take a placement test. It will, however, be a new one developed by the College Board, which system officials believe will be more accurate than the old one.

Brad Bostian, director of first year experience for Central Piedmont Community College, explained the reasoning behind the new process in a December 2012 article for Leadership Abstracts.

“Since the 1920’s,” wrote Bostian, “researchers have studied the predictive power of high school grades—and admission and intelligence tests—relative to college success.” The result? “It soon became apparent that the high school grade point average (GPA) is a better predictor of college success than tests.” 

Bostian said that the GPA is more predictive because it reflects more of the factors that are necessary to succeed in college. These factors include learning habits, motivation, persistence, and the ability to tackle a variety of tests and assignments. “College readiness is so much more than content readiness,” wrote Bostian.

A potential criticism of the use of high school GPA in student placement is that grades vary widely between different high schools. This means that a student at one school may have received a much higher or lower grade at a different school for the same level of work, making it much more difficult to determine who really is college-ready and who isn’t. Furthermore, there is growing concern about grade inflation. 

But Bostian is undeterred. In an interview with the Pope Center, Bostian said that the predictive power of GPAs from different high schools across the state was largely the same, with only a few outliers such as charter schools. “Almost all of the districts were within the same narrow band of being just about as predictive as one another,” he said. 

Moreover, Bostian said that if grade inflation in high schools continues, the new placement process contains safeguards against it. For one, the community college system will reexamine the proper GPA “cut” scores to determine how predictive they are in two years’ time. This would allow the colleges to adjust for grade inflation as needed. 

With the new placement process, the Columbia University study concluded that the number of “misplaced” students (as determined using advanced statistical methods) would be cut in half, from 30 percent to 15 percent. 

That would be quite an achievement if it works, but Ralls emphasized that this is “not the final point.” The system will reassess the new process after a short time.

With the new procedure, it appears that the high levels of remedial education will go down at community colleges. The fervent hope is that higher graduation rates will rise.