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Assessing new community college remediation rates

Last year, 42 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in one or more remedial or “developmental” math and/or English courses at a North Carolina community college.

All told, over 10,000 public high school graduates enrolled in one or more developmental courses. More than 8,000 enrolled in developmental math courses, and nearly 7,000 started their community college careers in developmental English courses. Historically, around two-thirds of students enrolled in remedial math or English courses earn Cs or better.

While the community college remediation rate was 10 percentage points higher the year before, don’t break out the champagne, balloons, and sheet cake just yet. Remediation rate decreases that have occurred over the last two academic years largely reflect placement policy changes.

As I have discussed elsewhere, the N.C. Community College System initiated a review of student placement and remedial course design in 2010. Based on the recommendations of policy and subject-area experts, system leaders approved a number of new initiatives designed better to serve underprepared high school graduates.

Most notably, NCCCS leaders introduced a “multiple measures” policy in 2013 that changed the way constituent institutions identify incoming students required to enroll in remedial English and mathematics courses. According to the NCCCS SuccessNC strategic plan, students who have graduated in the previous five years will be exempted from placement testing if they completed four years of math (including Algebra II) in high school and earned a grade point average of 2.6 or higher.

The college administrators who developed this plan observed that GPA, unlike other performance metrics, is a fairly reliable predictor of college success. Nevertheless, system researchers will monitor students who enroll directly in college-level courses and make modifications as needed.

Twenty-five community colleges adopted the new policy in preparation for the 2013 fall semester. By this year, all of the state’s community colleges will use these new diagnostic assessment and placement measures. Unless NCCCS officials make substantive changes to the policy, this year’s remediation rates should be commensurate with subsequent ones.

The NCCCS should be congratulated for its efforts to ensure that incoming students are enrolled in appropriate courses. Yet, the system ultimately has little control over the underlying cause of the problem — recent graduates from North Carolina high schools who lack basic literacy and math skills.

If the remediation rate is a reflection of the quality of a broad and vital segment of the state’s high school graduates, then taxpayers should be troubled by the fact that thousands of them enrolled in one or more remedial courses in a North Carolina community college.

In addition, the remediation rate should call into question another indicator of student performance — the high school graduation rate. Last year, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction announced that the statewide graduation rate was the highest recorded rate in the state’s history. As always, we must remain focused on increasing the quantity and quality of high school graduates.

Dr. Terry Stoops

Dr. Terry Stoops is Director of Research and Education Studies for the John Locke Foundation.