College & Workforce Readiness

H.S. Classes Offer Bypass to Remedial Courses

By Catherine Gewertz — October 25, 2016 7 min read
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Fed up with long rosters of college freshmen who can’t handle college-level courses, states are increasingly turning to 12th grade transition classes to build academic muscle to help students skip the remedial courses that can diminish their chances of earning a degree.

From coast to coast, states are bringing together high school teachers and college faculty to design a breed of English and math courses that reflect college expectations. Students who perform well in them can enroll directly in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in their state’s colleges, rather than wasting time and money on remedial classes.

Brandon Velazquez is a walking example of how the approach works. As a junior at Granger High School in Washington state in 2015, Brandon scored at level 2 on the English portion of his state’s mandated test, Smarter Balanced. The exam has four levels, with levels 3 and 4 signifying college readiness. Brandon got the message: He took a Bridge to College English course in 12th grade, and it’s paying off for him this year as a freshman at Eastern Washington University.

Brandon Velazquez, left, works after class with Carlos Munoz, an instructor and advisor at Eastern Washington University. Velasquez credits a transition course he took as a high school senior with helping him succeed in college. “I was a little worried when I first got here, but everything’s coming pretty easy to me,” he says.

“I was a little worried when I first got here, but everything’s coming pretty easy to me,” said Brandon, 18, who’s earning A’s in a credit-bearing English course. “That class really helped me.”

An Idea Gaining Ground

A few states have long offered 12th grade transition courses. But at least a half-dozen more have joined them in the past few years, haunted by college-remediation rates that show serious academic weakness among graduating high school students. Nationwide, 4 in 10 students at public four-year institutions, and two-thirds of those at community colleges, need remedial classes.

For most of the new transition-courses, it’s too early to tell whether they boost students’ college grades or their likelihood of completing degrees.

But some preliminary findings do suggest they can catapult students into credit-bearing coursework.That’s what Washington state was aiming for when it set out to build transition courses in 2012. Instructors from its community and technical college system got together with high school teachers to examine the Common Core State Standards, which guide instruction in Washington, to identify the learning goals most important to college study. Then they assembled courses based on materials that others had already created, said Bill Moore, who oversees the work as director of K-12 partnerships at the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges.

Washington’s Bridge to College course in English offers teachers modules drawn from the Southern Regional Education Board’s transition course, Literacy Ready; from materials created by New York state, and from California State University’s expository-writing course. That course is part of California’s long-standing Early Assessment Program, which allows students to skip remedial work in the Cal State system and in community colleges if they score high enough on a state test or pass specified transition courses.

Washington’s Bridge to College math is based on the SREB’s transition course, Math Ready, Moore said.

Washington state piloted its courses in 2013-14 and now offers them in 150 high schools, he said.

The project is part of a larger initiative to smooth out the seams between K-12 and higher education in Washington. The state was the first to persuade all its community colleges and four-year institutions, and nearly all its private colleges and universities to accept college-ready scores from a high school test as evidence of readiness for credit-bearing coursework. Students who score at levels 3 or 4 on Smarter Balanced can skip remedial courses; those who score at level 2 can, too, if they earn a B or better in transition classes.

“It was really important for us to reach students who can be marginal, students who decide later to aim for college,” Moore said. “We wanted to give them a chance at a pathway to college, too.”

Smoothing the College Transition

Teachers have found benefits in the transition courses, as well. Susan J. Cedars, a math teacher at Mariner High School in Everett, Wash., said the ongoing meetings with college professors raise her game. She particularly relishes the discussions to examine students’ work and define, collectively, what constitutes college-level performance.

“Having higher ed. in the room during [professional development] gives me a clear idea of what a B should mean,” Cedars said. “For me, it’s confirmed that ... I’m really giving you a class that will get you ready for college.”

Hawaii’s community college and high school instructors wrote a math transition course, vetted it with professors at the state’s university system, and piloted it last year. This year, 15 high schools offer the course, which takes a project-based approach to math. English courses will be available in 2017-18. Hawaii’s colleges allow students to skip remedial classes if they score at least a 2 on Smarter Balanced and earn a B or better in the transition course.

Karen Lee, the executive director of Hawaii’s P-20 Partnerships for Education, which coordinated the course development, said the idea was to “push remediation into the 12th grade when students are captured by their high schools.”

A particularly important aspect of the work was having university professors design the course assessments, said Dan Doerger, the Partnerships’ alignment director. It built confidence among high school and college instructors alike that a B in the class actually connoted college-level skills, he said.

Some studies have questioned the rigor of transition courses. A study released in March by the Community College Research Center, for example, found that a West Virginia math transition course didn’t seem to help students pass college-placement tests or perform well in college math. (The state has since replaced that course.)

That question about course rigor was front and center when Tennessee designed its college-transition courses. Leaders of that project felt it was important to bring existing college-remedial classes directly into high schools, instead of writing new ones.

“How could higher ed. faculty question whether students had met the requirements [for credit-bearing coursework] if they’re completing the exact same remedial course that’s taught in college?” said Mike Krause, who oversees the transition-course program, known as Tennessee SAILS, as executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. (SAILS stands for Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support.)

All Tennessee students take theACT, and they qualify for the math course by scoring 18 or lower out of 36 on that portion of the test. Students who pass the course can enroll in credit-bearing courses in the state’s community colleges. The math course has reached nearly 34,000 students since it debuted in 2012. Remediation rates at community colleges declined 15 percent between 2012 and 2015, and state officials attribute some of that decrease to students who complete the math SAILS course.

The state is still piloting an English transition course.

Early Findings

Preliminary studies of the SREB’s courses suggest that they can boost students’ ACT scores and their performance on college-placement tests. A not-yet-published study on Tennessee SAILS, by researchers from Vanderbilt and Harvard universities, shows that only 16 percent of SAILS students enrolled in remedial math as college freshmen, compared with 46 percent of similarly performing students who didn’t take the class.

One of the challenges in the transition-course work is the timing of the tests that determine eligibility. Students in Hawaii, for instance, don’t get their Smarter Balanced scores until late spring, after they’ve signed up for fall classes. Schools that offer the courses there rely more heavily now on teacher recommendations in counseling 11th graders to sign up for transition classes, then confirm their eligibility once test scores arrive, Doerger said.

Students who score above the cutoff can drop the transition course.

Another challenge lies in the variability of state policy. Most states are administering tests that can measure college readiness, but relatively few have identified a score point on those tests that would signal the need for intervention, according to a March 2015 report by the Education Commission of the States.

Only eight states require that college-readiness interventions be offered for lower-scoring students based on the results of those statewide tests. And only six require students to participate in those programs, according to the ECS.

SREB President David S. Spence, who led the design of California’s Early Assessment Program and, later, the SREB’s transition courses, which are being used in 10 states, said states help create the problem by setting too low a bar in general when they define college readiness.

“This is such a simple, good idea: Let’s take care of the readiness problems while students are still in high school,” Spence said. “But that’s not going to happen unless states realize the extent of the readiness problem.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as 12th Grade Classes Help Students Skip Remedial Courses


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