California wants to fix its college remediation epidemic: Time to consider high schools as Ground Zero

It’s heartening to learn that hundreds of thousands of college students in California might be offered a welcome detour from the dead-end route of remedial courses, which serves only to waste tuition money and discourage them from persevering in classes.

A piece of legislation cleared an important hurdle in the California legislature this week. It would require all two-year colleges seriously consider high school grades instead of just placement exams and to give students more of a choice before forcing them into non-credit-bearing courses. As reported in this article in EdSource:

With about 80 percent of community college students statewide now reportedly being required to take at least one non-credit remedial course in English or math, the proposed legislation could have a big impact in moving hundreds of thousands of students faster to their degrees and reducing dropout rates, supporters say.

In a major shift, the bill would reverse the traditional burden of proof: instead of students testing their way into credit classes, colleges would have to enroll them into those courses unless “those students are highly unlikely to succeed in them.”  Colleges would have to “maximize the probability that students will enter and complete college-level coursework in English and math within a one-year time frame,” the bill states.

The change would ally California more strongly to a growing movement nationwide to overhaul placement policies and to also create so-called co-requisite courses that allow remedial students to earn credit in classes that cover college level material with extra hours of lecture time and tutoring. The California State University system recently began an effort to eliminate all non-credit remedial classes and replace them with co-requisites by 2018.

…A new report, titled “Up to the Challenge: Community Colleges Expand Access to College-Level Courses,” which details experiences of community college students who were classified by tests as needing “basic skills” improvement, but were allowed into college level classes and did well.

Clearly it makes no sense to keep forcing students into courses that not only prove demoralizing, but also are not helping struggling students improve their skills. But given the staggering number of students statewide taking remedial courses in California, it might be time for the state to take the next step–try to figure out why the state’s high schools are doing such a poor job of preparing students for college-level coursework in math and English.

It’s easy to lay the blame at the feet of students-surely they didn’t try hard enough in high school, right?–but this problem of unprepared students is too massive to blame on individual problems or poverty. This isn’t just happening in the big cities–it’s statewide. And while remedial placement is higher for Black and Latino students, 74 percent of whites and 70 percent of Asians are placed in at least one remedial course in California’s community colleges.

Clearly, the colleges need to figured out how to support non-traditional students who start college many years after high school. But high schools need to own this problem too, and start figuring out why so many of their newly minted graduates need to repeat the material they should have learned in high school.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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