Remedial courses used by many to adjust to college

READY OR NOT: Second of a series

After enrolling in an online math course through California University of Pennsylvania last school year, Jessica Ging found her skills wanting.

"A lot of it was math I'd never even seen before," the 2007 Beaver Area High School graduate said, adding that the lack of face-to-face interaction with the instructor left her less disciplined than she otherwise would have been.

Ms. Ging failed the 3-credit Fundamentals of Mathematics, which Cal U also offers in a classroom, but she didn't throw in the towel. The aspiring fashion merchandiser tried to regroup this summer by enrolling in a developmental, or remedial, math course, called Improvement of Mathematical Skills, in a classroom at Community College of Beaver County.

In struggling to adjust to the rigors of college, Ms. Ging is far from alone. While academic preparation widely is regarded as the key ingredient to success in higher education, the academic shortcomings of college freshmen have led to widespread use of remedial courses on campuses nationwide.

Ready or Not
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Because they're not classified as college-level work, remedial courses usually don't give students academic credit toward degree programs. But the courses may provide institutional credit, helping students maintain full-time enrollment status.

Remedial courses are controversial because of their high cost, questions about their effectiveness and disagreement about their role in higher education.

Critics say the courses drain money, time and hope from those ill-suited for college. High schools, meanwhile, are blamed for not preparing students for post-secondary work.

During the 2003-04 school year, more than a third of first-and second-year undergraduates reported taking a remedial course in at least one subject since matriculating, according to a 2006 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Yet the number of high school graduates prepared for college may be even lower than the center's reports suggest.

Three-fourths of students who took the ACT college entrance exam in 2006 lacked the knowledge and skills to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses in reading, math, social studies and science, even though they had taken a high school curriculum designed to prepare them for higher education, according to an ACT study.

About one-fifth of test-takers were not ready for college-level courses in any of the four subjects, the study said.

The problem defies school districts' focus on math and reading achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and it affects students even from well-regarded school districts.

From every school district in Allegheny County, at least half of the 2006 high school graduates who enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County needed at least one developmental course in at least one content area. Overall, 67.3 percent of the class members who enrolled needed such help.

Among the 14 universities composing the State System of Higher Education, about 14 percent of first-time, full-time freshman in fall 2006 enrolled in remedial courses.

Ms. Ging said she took a placement test that directed her into a developmental English course at Cal U. She said she passed that course and took a credit-bearing English course the next semester.

But Ms. Ging struggled in the credit-bearing online math course even though she said her score on a placement test indicated she could handle the work. She said the developmental math course, which began with an overview of arithmetic and moved into basic algebra and geometry, has been a better fit.

"I think I'm going to do very well," said Ms. Ging, who plans to take additional courses at the CCBC this school year and ultimately enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Community colleges alone spend $1.4 billion annually on remedial courses for recent high school graduates, according to a 2006 report by the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education. The group noted that community colleges, like public schools, are subsidized by taxes.

"Thus, taxpayers are essentially paying twice for the course work and skill development students are expected to receive in high school," it said.

In Pennsylvania, remedial education at community colleges and State System universities cost $34.7 million in 2007-08, according to the state Department of Education.

But is it all too little, too late? Some research has cast doubt on the courses' effectiveness.

Remedial courses gave some freshmen the impetus to return for a second year, but the courses had "no discernible impact" on degree completion, according to a study of about 100,000 community college students in Florida. The study was released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Nor did remedial courses at Texas colleges during the 1990s help students graduate, according to a 2007 report by researchers at Rand Corp. and the University of Texas at Dallas.

"Our estimates indicate that remediation has a minimal impact [or even a slightly negative one] on the years of college completed, academic credits attempted, receipt of an academic degree and labor-market performance," they said.

Some colleges and universities are looking at ways to improve the quality of remedial courses, including adding extra instruction in small groups led by trained peers. They also are examining how students are placed into courses.

While explanations for the lack of college readiness vary, some educators contend that high school curricula simply aren't rigorous enough.

"Things have been watered down for so long that people don't know what to expect of kids," said Judy Codding, president and chief executive officer of America's Choice, a company that provides education programs to schools.

ACT and America's Choice, which teamed to develop a QualityCore curriculum for school districts, have joined a movement aimed at overhauling high schools so that there's less need for remedial help on campus.

To add rigor, some districts are turning to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, which are designed to closely reflect college work. The programs cite research showing that students who pass their courses outperform college peers. Enrollment in AP alone has nearly doubled over seven years, to 1.5 million students in 16,464 schools by 2006-07.

Also, to complement the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program, Pittsburgh Public Schools plans to boost efforts to steer students to the right sequence of courses in middle and secondary schools so they're better able to succeed in college.

In the state of California, part of the college-readiness push has come from campuses. The California State University system has attracted attention for aggressive efforts to increase high school students' college readiness, such as administering math and reading assessment tests to high school juniors so they have a year to better prepare themselves for college.

But some see the need for a more comprehensive solution.

Achieve Inc. issues an annual report card on states' efforts to align high school efforts with college expectations. The nonprofit group says the work can be accomplished through such measures as college-readiness tests and tougher high school graduation requirements.

While most states have made the work a priority, Achieve said in a March update: "What's also striking is how much work there is still to be done.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548. First Published September 1, 2008 4:00 AM


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