MONTGOMERY — More than 40 percent — and sometimes 50 percent — of local high school graduates needed remedial courses when they arrived at Alabama’s two- and four-year-colleges in recent years.
At one Franklin County School, 73 percent of college-bound students needed remedial work last fall.
The number of high school graduates who aren’t ready for college-level math and English is a problem K-12 educators say they’re trying to fix. At the same time, some local colleges are getting more creative in how they help these students.
For students, the remedial work can be time-consuming and expensive, especially for those with federal aid who are watching their education dollars slip away before they can graduate.
“This is very much on our radar,” said Sherrill Parris, state deputy superintendent of education. “Those high number of students who graduate (high school) and then need remediation are a big part of the reason for the Plan 2020.”
Plan 2020 outlines ways to improve education over the next seven years.
The numbers, compiled by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, track students by high school during their first year of college. Across the state, 33 percent needed remediation last fall. Locally, the numbers ranged much higher and lower than that figure.
Parris and Gregory Fitch, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said one problem is there is no remediation standard across public colleges. A student who may be considered remedial at one college may not be at another.
“There is no consistency between the colleges about how or who was remediated,” Parris said.
Mary Scott Hunter, a state Board of Education member from north Alabama, said another concern is that there is no good definition of “college ready” in the state. She said she doesn’t want standards to be dumbed down, and a lot of the responsibility is on the K-12 system.
“We should not be passing students, we should not have social promotion, and students should be meeting every milestone and should be matriculating only after they meet the standards.”
In Lawrence County schools, 58 percent of R.A. Hubbard High School graduates who attended college needed remedial courses last fall, but that’s down from 71 percent in 2009. In general, the system’s numbers in that area have decreased slightly in recent years.
“We’ve been studying these scores,” Superintendent Heath Grimes said. “We recognized we were a little higher than other schools in our area and other comparably-sized schools.”
Part of the challenge for a rural district, he said, is changing expectations at home. Grimes said the lowered percentages are also a result of changes in teaching.
“The short of it is that we’ve increased our expectations and improved our instructional strategies,” he said.
The numbers aren’t yet where they need to be, but Grimes said he’s encouraged by the trend.
In Franklin County, Superintendent Gary Williams said the question of why 73 percent of Tharptown High School’s college-bound grads needed remedial work last year is a hard one to answer.
“It’s been discussed and we’re trying to make progress,” Williams said. “We’d like none of our students to need remediation, but unfortunately, they do. It is something we will continue to work on.”
Digging through the data
Decatur City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols said he has questions about the data.
“We get a report from Auburn and Alabama every year that says our kids have higher GPAs than the average freshmen,” Nichols said. “We’re trying to figure out where this (remediation) data is coming from and what we can do.
“Our first challenge is to identify where those numbers come from and who they identify.”
Nichols would like the same standard across the college system, or at least to be able to tell prospective students what each college considers remedial.
Some students are always going to need additional assistance, Nichols said.
“We want to address this issue, but to do it we need to know what each college wants and how they are identifying folks,” he said.
Nichols points out the numbers don’t reflect students who went out of state or to private colleges, which, if added, could bring them down.
“Those numbers don’t reflect the Vanderbilts or Wake Forests,” he said.
‘False sense of accomplishment’
Janet Womack, superintendent of Florence schools, said passing the Alabama High School Graduation Exam, which students must do to receive a diploma, may give students “a false sense of accomplishment” and doesn’t truly mean they’re ready for college courses.
Womack also said schools need to do a better job of getting younger high school students set with a four-year plan for college readiness.
“Even if they don’t see it as an entering ninth-grader, we have to help them see it,” she said. “They can’t be a junior in high school before they say, ‘I need these courses to reach my dreams,’ and they haven’t laid the groundwork.”
The remediation data may also reflect different standards between high schools, Parris said.
“In some instances, it may mean that their high school course isn’t as rigorous as it needed to be,” she said. “The rigors of an Algebra II class in one high school may not be the same as another high school.”
Parris said the Department of Education would like to implement a standardized way to determine remediation - perhaps the ACT test 11th-graders take.
“That will give high school folks an idea,” she said. “If a student was making A’s, and then had to take remedial classes, obviously their high school course work isn’t at the level it needs to be.”
Pell grant problems
At Northwest-Shoals Community College, remedial course placement is usually based on ACT scores, said learning specialist Crystal Ingle. If students didn’t take the ACT, they receive a placement test.
“Obviously, we don’t want to put a student in pre-calculus if they can’t multiply or work with fractions,” Ingle said.
Of the college’s 3,728 students in the fall of 2012, 444 needed remedial math and 76 needed remedial English. About 240 students needed both.
The college offers two developmental English courses and three math courses. There is also one remedial reading class.
Ingle said if a student buckles down, he or she can take all the remedial math courses in one semester.
She said Northwest-Shoals is taking a different approach for English. Starting this fall, students who barely miss testing into English 101 can take English composition, which is a for-credit course, and a one-hour, non-credit supplemental course. That replaces the need of paying for a three-hour remedial course.
Counting credits has become a bigger deal in the last year with restrictions on the federal Pell grants. Last year, the Pell grant program, which provides financial aid to low-income students, was changed.
Instead of receiving money for up to 18 full-time semesters, students now receive it for 12 semesters. With the change being retroactive, some students were immediately out of aid when the change went into effect.
Ben Baker, director of student financial services at the University of North Alabama, said getting a degree while on Pell grants now requires more planning and limits the number of classes a student can drop at midsemester. Students need a minimum of 128 credit hours to receive a degree at UNA. A music education major needs 150 hours.
“If all you ever take is 12 hours for 12 semesters, you’re going to have to be just about perfect in your scheduling and planning your classes,” Baker said. “You have the leeway to drop about three courses.”
Fitch said some students need to take 12 to 15 credit hours of remedial courses — a full semester — which they have to pay for but don’t receive college credit. Some have to take the same remedial class multiple times in order to pass it and move on with their education.
Baker said it’s not uncommon for students to drop and lose credits for up to 10 courses in their college careers.
“You bought and paid for your course, but you have nothing to show for it,” Baker said.
He said he had a student several years ago who dropped or failed the same math course five times before finally passing it. “That was an expensive course.”
“The two remedial courses (we offer) only amount to six hours,” Baker said. “That ought not to be a big roadblock, but these students dropping courses is a problem.”
Ingle and Baker are telling students with Pell grants to be more diligent with their hours.
“We are looking for them to transfer to a four-year institution and still have the funds to pay for it,” Ingle said.
“Be very careful with what classes you take and make sure they’re going toward your degree,” Ingle said. Financial aid is changing it all. We recently saw interest rates for student loans double. I think this is just the beginning.”
Mary Sell covers state government for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at email@example.com.