North Carolina Unveils Innovative Approach to Remediation

The North Carolina Community College System is poised to become a national leader in career and college readiness. At a time when there is a spotlight on both high schools and community colleges to do a better job preparing students for prosperous careers, the North Carolina Community College System has taken several key steps toward that goal. 

Evidence of the problem is clear: A recent report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) found that 68 percent of community college students require at least one remedial education class. Furthermore, students who must take remedial classes often do not progress to credit-bearing courses. Only 28 percent earned a degree or certificate within eight years.

The CCCSE says the first step to solve this issue is to improve skill assessment measurements. Historically, colleges relied on either standardized test scores or general placement exams to determine a student’s need for remediation. But studies have shown that these measures are poor indicators of a student’s actual skills and potential for success at the college level. The North Carolina legislature addressed this issue in 2013 by adopting the North Carolina Multiple Measures for Placement policy. Under this policy, students are evaluated on a number of measures, which now include grade point average and transcript data in addition to standardized and placement test scores. 

Data from Davidson County Community College showed that students placed using the new GPA measures succeeded in their first year at a higher rate in both English and math, than did their peers placed into courses based on the other criteria. Specifically, 65 percent of students placed with GPA data achieved a grade of C or better, while only 48 percent of their peers achieved the same success.

In the years that followed the adoption of the Multiple Measures for Placement policy, the percentage of students who enrolled in remedial classes dropped significantly—from 63 percent in 2012, to 52 percent in 2013, to 42 percent in 2014.

In addition to new assessment measures, representatives of the community college system worked with leaders from the Department of Public Instruction and the University of North Carolina System to articulate a clear definition of career and college readiness. This definition allowed for curriculum alignment between levels of education, and enabled a smoother transition for students.

Utilizing the new measures and articulated goals, the Community College System is now on the cusp of an even bigger reform: fundamentally changing the delivery of remedial education in the state of North Carolina. 

In 2015 the North Carolina General Assembly instructed the State Board of Community Colleges (SBCC) to develop a plan to shift remedial math and English courses from the community college level into high schools, which required students who do not meet certain criteria during their junior year to attend remedial classes during their senior year. 

The law set broad regulations for the SBCC to follow regarding: the establishment of assessment standards for placement in remediation; the design of high school remedial curriculum; and measures of successful completion of these courses. Staff members from the SBCC recently unveiled a proposal to institute regional pilot programs, which are ready for launch for the 2016-17 academic year.

The proposal recommended the establishment of three regions: the Central region which includes Davidson County, Randolph, and Vance-Granville community colleges; the Eastern region that has Brunswick and Coastal Carolina community colleges; and the Western region, which includes A-B Technical and Central Piedmont colleges. Within each region at least two high schools are required to launch pilot programs within the next year.

The proposal utilizes the same indicators established by the Multiple Measures for Placement policy: 11th grade assessment scores, cumulative GPA, and scores on standardized tests. Students who do not meet the minimum benchmarks during their junior years will be required to enroll in remedial coursework.

As for the precise courses to be offered, the SBCC report highlighted three different strategies that are already utilized across the state, which it recommended should be further tested and built upon.

The first program highlighted is the Network Resources Open College and Career (NROC) Project, which offers students customized math and English programs by utilizing pre-assessment tools to adapt content to specific proficiency gaps. This program is currently utilized at Central Piedmont Community College in bridge programs, and to help prepare students for placement tests.

A similar program has been in place in Tennessee since 2011. Participation in the Tennessee Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support program uses personalized online learning, with instant feedback to provide individual support to students. The program is expected to be used by 17,000 students this year, and has had a 91 percent success in achieving college-ready math competency in the first four years. 

The second program, currently in use at Davidson County Community College, is the College Transition Center. This method pairs technology-based learning with teacher-led group lessons and individualized attention. The SBCC report suggests using this method as a summer bridge program, which could be followed by enrollment in a NROC-like program.

Finally, the report suggests utilization of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) Math Ready course. This course is already used by high schools in the state, and fulfills the fourth math requirement of the Multiple Measures for Placement policy. The course teaches basic foundational concepts, usually spread across different math classes. Randolph Community College has already partnered with Asheboro High School to align the content of the Math Ready course with college-ready standards, to further improve the learning outcomes.

The report concluded with the recommendation to establish regional taskforces comprised of faculty from high school and community colleges to discuss curriculum alignment, to develop courses to fulfill agreed-upon objectives, and to enact an evaluation plan.

Despite this very promising step toward reformation of a clearly defunct remediation system, there are two potentially important factors left unanswered in the SBCC progress report. 

First, there is presumably a cost associated with the pilot program—particularly licensing new software—and neither the original legislation nor the report allocate or address funding sources.

Secondly, at a time when the average age of community college students is 29, a sizable percentage of students are not entering college straight from high school. The SBCC must focus on remedial education to these students as well.

However, the progress already made highlights an important accomplishment for public education in North Carolina. Unlike the majority of institutions nation-wide, neither community colleges nor high schools are deflecting responsibility for increasing the college and career success of the state’s students. The program as outlined in the report stands to thrust North Carolina into the spotlight as a potential leader in altering the way colleges deliver remedial education.