Grad rates rise, achievement falls

Anthony Sobowale failed high school chemistry, then passed after three days of “online credit recovery.” Now he’s struggling with organic chem at Georgia State. Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Online credit recovery courses are raising graduation rates and failing students, writes Jeremy Noonan, a science teacher who runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools.

In October, President Obama announced that the national high school graduation rate had reached an all-time high in 2015. Yet that same year, the percentage of high school seniors ready for college-level reading and math declined to 37 percent. In other words, as graduation rates rise, other metrics of student achievement are falling, raising questions about how schools are getting more students to graduate.

In most school districts, students who’ve failed courses can make up the credits quickly via online credit-recover (OCR) courses, writes Noonan. “Passage rates don’t match achievement data.”

In Georgia, 90 percent of OCR students earned credit, but only 10 percent tested as proficient on state exams, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Noonan worked for a Douglas County, Georgia school district that raised its graduation rate — but not student achievement. As an OCR classroom manager, he was told to ensure that students earned at least 80 percent on multiple-choice quizzes and tests by giving them as many tries as they needed. The questions and answer choices were repeated, in the same order.

In addition, teachers provided “answer checks,” writes Noonan.

When students finished the first attempt on a quiz or test, they call upon the teacher for a “check.” He or she pulls up the student’s answers, reviews them, and informs the student which questions are incorrect. The student then changes his or her answers before submitting the assessment for a grade.

Most students didn’t pay attention to the lessons, writes Noonan. They knew they could guess their way to a passing score.

As Douglas County’s graduation rate rose, so did the percentage of graduates who required college remediation.

Does remediation help? It depends

College students who start in remedial classes usually fail to earn a degree. Is remediation a flop? Or are these students too far behind to catch up?

Remedial classes help poorly prepared students — if they complete the classes, concludes a new analysis of federal data. However, it’s a waste of time for moderately or well-prepared students (based on high school transcripts), who sometimes fail placement tests and end up in remediation.

Sixty-eight percent of community college students and 40 percent of state university students took at least one remedial class, according to a transcript analysis of people who started college in 2003-04. Nearly half of two-year students and one fifth of four-year students needed two remedial classes.

At community colleges, only half of remedial students completed required courses. Those who did complete were as likely as non-remedial students to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, and far more likely to succeed than remedial dropouts.

At state universities, the 59 percent of underprepared students who completed remediation were less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than non-remedial classmates, but nearly twice as likely to succeed as remedial dropouts.

Some colleges have found success with “co-requisite” remediation: Underprepared students start in  college-level classes, with access to support classes and labs.

Skipping remediation seems to work for students who are close to the college level, but not for the weakest students. That suggests colleges should rethink placement tests so remediation is reserved for those who really need it.

Emily Hanford makes the case against the “college remediation trap.”

As 64% take ACT, scores fall

ACT scores are dropping as more students — 64 percent of 12th graders — take the exam. Some states require the ACT, even for students who aren’t planning to enroll in college.

Only 38 percent of test takers tested as college ready in at least three of the four subject areas (English, math, reading and science). Thirty-four percent are not prepared to pass entry-level college courses in any subject, according to ACT.

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“While 60 percent of Asian American students and 49 percent of white students showed strong readiness for college coursework, meeting three or more of the ACT benchmarks, just 23 percent of Hispanic students and only 11 percent of African American students earned that same level of achievement,” ACT reports.

Most community college students believe — incorrectly — that they’re prepared for college, according to a study by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin.

While 86 percent of new students believe they are academically prepared, 68 percent take at least one remedial class.

Sixty-one percent think they’ll earn a certificate or degree in two years or less. Only 39 percent of first-time, full-time community college students earn a credential in six years, reports the National Student Clearinghouse.

College remediation — before college

Most high school graduates enroll in college, but one in four will be placed in remedial math or English or both, reports Education Reform Now. At community colleges, a majority of entering students aren’t prepared for college-level work.

Twelfth graders prepare for college math at a high school math lab.

Tennessee 12th graders prepare for college math.

Not surprisingly, poorly prepared students are more likely to drop out. Those who earn a degree take longer and spend more to reach their goals.

Now, a few high schools in Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado are warning students they’re on the remedial track before it’s too late, offering catch-up classes in 12th grade, reports Hechinger’s Jon Marcus.

Fewer students are showing up at college needing remediation.

An analysis of data obtained by The Hechinger Report finds that, from 2011 to 2014, the proportion of high school graduates arriving at Tennessee community colleges in need of remedial instruction fell from 69 percent to 59 percent while the percentage of students in Indiana landing at all public universities and colleges unprepared for college-level work dropped from 31 to 18, and in Colorado from 41 to 34.

The idea is getting a push from new funding policies that reward public colleges and universities based not on their enrollment, but on their students’ ultimate success.

In Tennessee, where only 17 percent of public high school students score at college-ready levels on the ACT, 240 high schools have joined SAILS, the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support program. Seniors who’ve scored below 19 in ACT math take online or in-person SAILS courses “designed by college faculty in collaboration with high school teachers,” Marcus reports.

Some high schools are adding SAILS help in English.

Here’s more on how colleges are trying to place fewer students in remedial classes and move them more quickly to the college level. One option is to lower math requirements for students who plan low-math majors.

Failing remedial algebra, passing statistics

Michigan State will drop its algebra requirement in favor of “quantitative literacy,”  reports Inside Higher Ed.

“We’re trying to present mathematics in a way that makes it more accessible and understandable,” said Vince Melfi, associate professor of statistics and probability. For example, students will study how probability applies to health and risk, Melfi said.

. . . students could be informed that a hypothetical person’s test came back positive for breast cancer. Based on that information, they would be asked to determine the likelihood that the person had the disease.

After arriving at answers, students would be encouraged to discuss the value of screening for diseases such as breast cancer or prostate cancer — a topic that has fostered debate among medical professionals, Melfi said. “An important part of these courses is to go beyond just manipulating symbols on a page and coming up with the right answer, and to reflect on what those answers mean in a specific context,” he said.

Statistics probably is more useful to non-STEM students than the algebra. But, I wonder about college students who can’t figure out 2x + 4 = 14. It’s not rocket science.

Wayne State University in Detroit decided to drop its general-education math requirement, but plans to introduce “math experience” courses for students whose majors don’t require math.

Remedial math — basic algebra — is a huge stumbling block for many students, especially at the community college level, reports Science DailyPoorly prepared students are more likely to be able to pass statistics, City University of New York researchers have found.

New community college students assessed as needing remedial algebra were placed randomly in a remedial algebra course, remedial algebra with weekly workshops providing extra support or in a college-level statistics class with weekly workshops.

Fifty-six percent of statistics students passed compared to 39 percent in remedial algebra. By the middle of their second year in college, 57 percent of statistics students had met their college’s math requirement, compared to only 16 percent of remedial algebra students.

Parents pay $1.5 billion remedial college bill

One in four first-year college students must take remedial classes, according to an Education Reform study. Their families pay nearly $1.5 billion for no-credit classes.

Forty-five percent of remedial students come from middle- and upper-income families and nearly half are enrolled at four-year colleges.

“People are underestimating the breadth and depth of high school underperformance. They think it’s not their kids,” said Michael Dannenberg of Education Reform Now, a co-author of the report.

Dropout rates are much higher for unprepared students, leaving many with college debts, but no college degree.

Get real: Most grads aren’t college ready

Forty percent of A students are placed in remedial classes in community college, according to a new report, Expectations Meet Reality, by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Over all, 86 percent of new students say they’re well prepared academically and 68 percent start — and usually end — in remediation.

Most remedial students quit before earning a credential, writes Meredith Kolodner for the Hechinger Report. Colleges are trying alternatives, such as starting unprepared students in college-level courses with access to basic skills help, to raise low success rates.

Stop with the political correctness and admit the truth that “ordinary people” already know, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. “Lots of high school graduates aren’t ready for college

Less than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for college, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), he writes. Yet nearly all are urged to enroll in college.

As the “college preparation gap” grows, completion rates are trending downward: The six-year graduation rate is 53 percent for those who started college in 2009.

We should stop encouraging unprepared students to go to college, writes Petrilli. “Why saddle them with debt and regret? Why allow colleges to cash checks from Pell Grants that aren’t going to do the students, or taxpayers, any good?”

Telling the truth about unprepared students’ high failure rates in college is politically impossible because most public schools don’t offer real alternatives — or the truth — to students who are on the remedial track. They need a chance to catch up in high school and choose (real) academic college prep or (real) career prep leading to a two-year degree or certificate with workplace value.

Educating the unready

“Corequisite remediation” — letting students take college-level requirements while catching up on basic skills — triples the (very low) success rate for unprepared college students, concludes Spanning the Divide, a new Complete College America report. Success is defined as the number of underprepared students who complete introductory college-level math and English courses.

One in three recent high school graduates — including 56 percent of blacks and 45 percent of Latinos — are placed in remedial courses, according to CCA.

The rate is higher at community colleges, where only 20 percent of remedial students go on to complete an introductory college course in their weak subject within two years.

Corequisite remediation raised the success rate to 61 percent in math and 64 percent in English, according to the report.

Rising grad rate is phony statistic

The high school graduation rate is “the phoniest statistic in education,” writes Robert Pondiscio. It’s up to a new high of 82 percent. But student proficiency isn’t up.  Neither is college readiness.

A high school diploma “signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency,” he writes. “But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.”

There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.

Rising graduation rates may reflect the drop in teen pregnancy and efforts to identify and help high-risk students, writes Motoko Rich in the New York Times. But schools and districts can pump up the numbers by making it easy for students to “recover” unearned credits.

In Baltimore, five-year graduation rates have risen from 66.7 percent in 2010 to 74.9 percent in 2014, notes Pondiscio.  But 36.5 percent of students graduated via the “High School Bridge for Academic Validation Plan.”

There’s “no way of knowing whether (credit recovery is) academically rigorous or merely a failsafe to paper over failure and drag unprepared kids across the finish line to boost graduation rates,” he writes. “There may yet be a pony at the bottom of this prodigious pile.” Or not.

New York City’s graduation rate has hit 70 percent, reports Chalkbeat. However, the 24 percent rise since 2005 “is sure to elicit questions about the meaning of those numbers, especially following a wave of media reports last year detailing incidents where schools changed students’ grades or awarded them unearned credits in order to help them graduate.”

B’s in high school, remediation in college

California’s state universities should stop admitting students who need remedial math or English, writes Darren on Right on the Left Coast. Unprepared students should start at community colleges.

He teaches at a college-oriented high school in an affluent Sacramento suburb.  Forty percent of graduates who go to Sacramento State require remediation. Overall, 53 percent of Sac State freshman are placed in remedial classes, reports the Sacramento Bee.

“Experts say the primary factors are a lack of collaboration between universities and high schools, inadequate information about the expectations of college and an increase in the emphasis on attending college for students who previously would have pursued another track,” reports the Bee.

The Cal State system requires a B average or lower grades with above-average test scores. It’s supposed to admit the upper third of the graduating class.

So a lot of high schools are giving B’s in college-prep courses to students who aren’t prepared for college.

At Grant Union High School in Sacramento, all students are enrolled in college prep classes, said Jacqueline Perez, associate superintendent of teaching and learning at Twin Rivers Unified. Despite this, only 10 of the 54 students who were accepted into Sacramento State passed the placement tests in math and English.

Sac State hopes to cut remedial classes by partnering with school districts, community colleges and education nonprofits.

The university is hoping to provide curriculum to schools, as well as math and English courses that could be taught at the high school or at the university. CSUS officials are encouraging high schools to promote exams like the SAT and PSAT and Accelerated College Entrance coursework that will help incoming freshmen avoid remediation and even earn college credits . . .

“Share the standards, let us know what college students need–and let us provide that education to students,” writes Darren.  “Those that master it will be ready to attend a university. Those that don’t, won’t be.”

Sixteen or 17 years ago, when I was on the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News, the new head of the Cal State system, Charles Reed, came in to discuss his plan for cutting remediation. Statewide, more than half of new students required at least one remedial class.

The big innovation was limiting university students to one year of remediation before they had to go to community college. CSU also put an option readiness test on the state exam, so 11th graders could see if they were on track for college-level courses. And, of course, CSU was going to work with high schools.

Reed said moving all remediation to the community colleges was politically impossible.

Achieve’s How the States Got Their Rates looks at high school graduation requirements. Only a few states require all students to meet “college and career readiness” standards.