Remedial courses are ‘barriers’ for many community college students, report says

Neil Hanshaw for EdSourceStudents study at De Anza College. Neil Hanshaw for EdSourceStudents study at De Anza College. A large number of California’s community college students face roadblocks in their education and drop out because they are required to take remedial — or what college officials call developmental — courses in math or English that many never pass, according to a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The highly critical study notes that 80 percent of students entering community colleges enroll in at least one developmental course based on their testing results or other criteria. It found many students get stuck in those classes and never make much progress toward diplomas. The report also said 44 percent of students complete their sequence of math remedial courses within six years, while 60 percent do so in English.
Developmental courses are supposed to prepare students for college-level work and do not carry credits counting toward degrees or certificates. But the more such courses that students are required to take, the more likely they are to drop out before they get to credit-bearing classes, said PPIC, a non-partisan research group that studies a wide range of state issues including energy, the economy, prisons and education. Just 16 percent of students placed in developmental education earn a certificate or associate degree in six years, the study found.
In the way it is designed and implemented at most California community colleges, developmental education “is lengthy, attrition is high and outcomes are poor,” stated the report titled “Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges.” “That system wastes students’ tuition money and time as well as state dollars and campus resources,” it said.
Developmental education at community colleges “is lengthy, attrition is high and outcomes are poor,” said the PPIC report.
While noting that the state and colleges have taken “promising” steps to reform the system, it said not enough has been done and not enough students have benefited from changes already made. The report called for improving the accuracy of student placement in remedial sequences, strengthening the courses and shortening the time it takes students to complete the courses. Such steps would help “eliminate key barriers preventing many community college students from achieving their academic goals,” the report said.
Students usually are placed in developmental classes based on testing results — and sometimes high school grades — and they can be required to take as many as four courses in both math and English if their scores are especially low. On average, those students are assigned to take two-and-a-half semesters of remedial math and two of English.
The report showed grim outcomes that disproportionately affect some minorities. About 87 percent of Latinos and African Americans are placed into at least one developmental math or English class, compared with 74 percent of whites and 70 percent of Asians.
But not all the findings were gloomy. The state Legislature has provided funding for extra tutoring and college-readiness classes. And many colleges are starting to make such changes as compressing two semesters of work into one and allowing students to enroll in credit-bearing courses that require them to do extra work, such as supplemental tutoring or an online study group. Some schools are reducing the number of students sent into developmental classes by adding high school grades to the review and placement process, not just relying on entrance tests. The report urged widening of such efforts at the state’s 113 community colleges, which enroll a total of 2.1 million students.
Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications for the California Community Colleges, said in a statement that the system “recognizes that success rates in remedial courses are not acceptable and that these outcomes disproportionately impact first-generation students and students of color. That is why the California community college system is more focused than ever on bringing successful practices to scale to improve outcomes for our students.”
He also said colleges are changing placement practices to allow more students to start out in college-level courses “because research shows that large numbers of students can succeed there.” The statewide chancellor’s office has awarded grants to colleges for such things as summer bridge programs and adding tutoring to basic skills classes. “Transforming this area of education is critical for the success of our students and our state,” Feist said.
The study said it used data across the state from the California Community Colleges system and focused on students who started in 2009-10.
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