Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, likes to use oceanic analogies.
When he refers to a broad array of initiatives underway to improve the success of community college students, he calls it “boiling the ocean.”
Not just the water, but the ocean.
When he refers to the state’s 65 percent remediation rate at the community college level, he calls it the “Bermuda Triangle” of college aspirations.
To address the remediation problem and a vast array of other issues, the community college system embarked three years ago on SuccessNC, which began with a thorough vetting of student data.
With data mining results in hand, system leaders initiated reform efforts aimed at addressing a wide range of stumbling blocks for student success, including the 65 percent remediation rate.
The initiative includes a complete overhaul of remedial coursework in math and language arts as well as the creation of new placement tests that correlate directly with the new remedial classes.
The goal of the new tests, Ralls said, is to pinpoint exactly where students need help. “Then we don’t need to boil the ocean and provide them all of it,” he said. “We can provide much more targeted assistance in that regard.”
In addition, there are plans to adopt multiple measures, including grade point average, or GPA, to determine whether incoming students need to take a remedial class.
While tests serve a purpose, Ralls said, “GPA is seen as a metric that captures a lot of things – cognitive intelligence but also student perseverance and grit and all that combination of things that lead to student success.”
The changes represent a significant shift from the way things have been done in the past, he said, and “we think (they) will make a difference for the future.”
The community college system’s focus on remediation, he said, “has been sort of ground zero for us . . . . What we saw from looking at data, [it] was kind of the Bermuda Triangle for student success.”
In tandem with the community college initiative, the state’s K-12 system is also doing its part to address the remediation problem.
The Department of Public Instruction, for example, is in the process of creating new transitional courses in math and English that will provide high school students with remediation before they graduate.
Whether students need to take the new transitional courses will be determined by a variety of possible indicators, including GPA and ACT scores, said DPI Curriculum Director Maria Pitre-Martin.
“It’s one piece of the puzzle,” she said, adding that there are several statewide initiatives, including the implementation of Common Core standards, aimed at making students both career and college ready.
The courses, which DPI is developing in conjunction with five other states and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), are slated for implementation in the 2013-2014 school year.
Another part of the K-12 strategy is algebra II. The remediation rate for math is significantly higher than it is for English or reading, yet algebraic problem solving skills are essential in a wide range of high-tech fields.
“The expectation for all students,” said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer at DPI, “is that they have math through algebra II, which includes geometry, which gives them a pretty good opportunity to go into the community college system without having to have remediation.”
Algebra II is not a graduation requirement, but it is part of the state’s accountability system, and it dovetails with decisions made in recent years that require graduating seniors to have four math and four social studies credits, not three.
If all goes according to plan, the new transitional courses coupled with the emphasis on algebra II and the increase in academic rigor will help high school graduates bypass remedial coursework, especially at the community college level where the remediation rate approaches 50 percent in English and exceeds 60 percent in math.
Remediation classes are supposed to be a stepping stone to postsecondary credentials, but research shows they may actually be a barrier to college success.
In a joint report released last week, four education organizations came to this conclusion: “We have learned that long sequences of fragmented, reductive coursework are not an on-ramp to college for underprepared students, but a dead-end.”
Compiled by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), Jobs for the Future, the Charles A. Dana Center and Complete College America, Inc., the report is called “Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement.”
“Most students who are referred to remedial education,” it said, “do not even complete the remedial sequence,” much less a degree or certificate program.
Part of the problem, the report said, is the emphasis on a single high stakes test to determine if new students need to take a remedial course. For many there’s a time lag between high school and college, and unlike other high stakes tests, applicants typically do not prepare for college placement tests.
The upshot, the report said, is that a high percentage of students do not need a remedial course and would be better served by academic and other supports that allow them to enter quickly into regular, for-credit coursework.
In North Carolina, Governor-elect Pat McCrory has said that a dual track diploma system is the answer, one that signals whether a student is career or college ready. Educators, however, tend to steer clear of the dual track idea, preferring instead to emphasize academic and career readiness for all.
Dual pathways, said SREB Director Gene Bottoms, “can set up a situation where somebody decides in the ninth grade that you don’t have the gray matter to do any more.
“What it often turns into is a warehousing program for kids from the other side of the tracks,” he said.
Instead, Bottoms recommends a form of vocational education that combines academic rigor and the real world settings of career and technology education.
“Our approach is one diploma with quality options,” he said, adding that the range of options includes everything from a four-year degree to on-the-job training.
North Carolina’s interim career and technology committee, a Republican-dominated panel, also recommends the single diploma approach, albeit one with caveats.
Last week it issued a final report recommending that lawmakers implement a range of measures to strengthen career and technology education, including the creation of “endorsed” diplomas. If adopted by the legislature, the endorsements would apply to electives.
A cluster of electives focused on career and technology, for example, would receive a “career” designation; one focused on academic courses, would get a “college” designation; and a student could conceivably get both – or none.
Citing the benefits of linking academics to real world career settings, the committee also recommended a streamlined process for hiring career and technology teachers; the sharing of resources between public schools and community colleges; and a concerted effort to increase the number of students enrolled in vocational education programs.