Connecticut May Let College Students Skip Remedial Classes

Remedial help may be bundled into regular college-level courses under a new bill in the state Senate.

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Remedial classes could be slashed in Connecticut—but not because students are prepared to do college-level work. Under a bill approved by the state's Senate higher education committee, all community college and state university students could take college-level, credit-bearing courses with "embedded" remedial help for those who need it. That could mean an additional skills class, a lab, or tutoring.

Seventy percent of Connecticut's community college students start in remedial reading, writing, or math classes for which they earn no credit. Most never earn a certificate or degree.

[Read how to avoid taking remedial math classes.]

Students are wasting time and money on remedial classes, says Sen. Beth Bye (D-West Hartford), who introduced the bill and co-chairs the higher education committee. Just as high school students can try to pass a college-level Advanced Placement class, "our college kids should be allowed to try a college class."

Only 13.6 percent of full-time, degree-seeking students who took a remedial class in 2005 earned an associate degree within four years, reports the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education.

Many students are "way more than a little behind," testified David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College and the Board of Regents' interim vice president for community colleges, at a committee hearing on the bill. If students skip remediation, he fears a "Darwinian result where they fail introductory classes in large numbers."

But research shows that students who just miss placing out of remedial classes do equally well when they skip remediation and go straight to college classes, says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC), which is based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

[Read about the economic benefits of starting at community college.]

Mainstreaming remedial English students with extra support proved effective at Maryland's Community College of Baltimore County, a CCRC study found.

CCBC's Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) lets students who just miss passing the writing exam enroll in both English 101 and a skills workshop taught by the same instructor. ALP students complete English 101 at nearly twice the rate of similar students in traditional remedial courses, and are more likely to pass other English courses.

However, there's "no evidence that putting lower-level remedial students in college-level academic courses is effective," Jenkins says.

One third to one half of students who place into remedial classes could succeed in college-level classes from the start—with the right support, argues Stan Jones, president of Complete College America. Learning basic skills should be a "co-requisite" rather than a prerequisite, he argues. Under the co-requisite model, such as CCBC's ALP, students take a college-level course (for credit) and a linked remedial course (for no credit) at the same time. Co-requisite remedial education should be the norm, Complete College America believes.

[See four things to know about community colleges.]

Mainstreaming the top 10 percent of students who place into remedial courses makes sense, says Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education in North Carolina. More could succeed if provided tutoring, writing or math labs, academic counseling, or mentoring, he adds.

Colleges aren't good at determining who needs a 16-week remedial course and who doesn't, Boylan says. "A student who reads below the eighth-grade level should no more be allowed to take Psychology 101 than a student who can't do eighth-grade math should be allowed to take Advanced Physics. On the other hand, there is no reason why a student who is at the eighth-grade-level in math can't take and pass a college-level writing course."

Placement tests—which decide who's ready and who's remedial—aren't very accurate, according to two recent CCRC studies. In both an urban community college system and a statewide system, more than a quarter of the students assigned to remedial classes could have taken college-level courses instead and earned grades of B or higher, researchers concluded.