College & Workforce Readiness

‘Transitional’ Courses Catch On as College-Prep Strategy

By Caralee J. Adams — February 18, 2014 8 min read
Teacher Kristin A. Harker works with students at Madison Consolidated High School in Madison, Ind., who are taking a "readiness" course in mathematics that aims to prepare them for college-level math classes.
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With many students entering college ill prepared to succeed academically, one remedy states and districts are increasingly bringing to the table is transitional coursework for high schoolers who need extra help.

Take Tennessee. High school teachers and community college faculty members teamed up to develop an online math course, first piloted in 2012, for those who score poorly on the act and need to catch up before graduation. Since then, the initiative has drawn broader support, including backing from Gov. Bill Haslam.

This academic year, the course began to roll out statewide with some $1.12 million from the governor’s “innovation fund.” Mr. Haslam, a Republican, is proposing another $2.6 million to expand the program as part of his fiscal 2014-15 budget.

Eight states now offer transitional curricula statewide to high school students, and another 21 states have locally run initiatives, according to a recent review by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. The report, issued last May, also found that 25 states, and districts in another 13 states, measure the ability of all high school students by the junior year to succeed in entry-level courses at the postsecondary level.

Early assessments and corresponding course interventions are gaining traction as part of a concerted push to help students leave high school college-ready, said Elisabeth A. Barnett, a researcher at the center who led the recent state review. Her report also found that more than a dozen other states were in the process of planning such programs.

‘Paying Twice’

With the annual cost of providing remedial education in college pegged at nearly $7 billion, based on federal data, states are eager for ways to reduce the need.

“To policymakers, it’s like paying twice for the same education,” said Ms. Barnett.

Students at Madison Consolidated High School in Madison, Ind., work through math problems in a "readiness" course that aims to prepare them for college-level math classes.

The transitional curricula being offered by states and districts typically consist of a course, a set of instructional units, online tutorials, or other educational experiences offered no later than 12th grade to students considered at risk of being placed into remedial college courses, according to the Teachers College report.

These programs are designed for students who don’t quite meet college-readiness benchmarks, but who aspire to college and need some extra instruction. Students take the transitional courses during the school day, usually for high school credit with the goal of entering credit-bearing college courses upon matriculation.

A few states, such as California, were early adopters of the transitional approach, but most states have launched their programs in the past two to three years, and interest is rising, according to Ms. Barnett. The issue will be front and center in every state soon with the advent of assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Once students are deemed ready or not—and many educators anticipate that large numbers will not be college-ready—states will be scrambling to find ways to get students up to speed, Ms. Barnett added.

“The huge readiness gap has been apparent for several years, but it is growing, and we will continue to see it grow as the common core takes hold,” said Megan A. Root, a senior associate with the Southern Regional Education Board, in Atlanta, which has been an advocate of what it calls “readiness” courses to ease the transition to college or career training.

The SREB convened teams of teachers, college faculty members, and other experts who worked for three years to develop curricula for a math course and a literacy course for struggling high school students. The courses are being piloted now in 20 schools in seven states, including Arkansas, Indiana, and Louisiana, and the curriculum was posted free online in November. The board is working with 16 states, which have committed to the agenda with varying levels of policy to support it.

While such efforts with transitional curricula may be part of the answer to the challenge of improving college completion, alone they are insufficient, said Phillip Lovell, a vice president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

“Rather than just remediation, we need to look at pathways to acceleration,” such as dual-enrollment or early-college high school, he said.

The problem of inadequate college-readiness is acute in Tennessee, where 70 percent of students entering college after high school graduation require remediation in math, according to the Tennessee board of regents. The three-year graduation rate for students placed in remedial math upon entering community college is 5 percent.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Robert M. Denn, the dean of school relations and university articulation at Chattanooga State Community College.

A Hybrid Approach

To address the situation, his college developed the SAILS model, short for Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support. The initiative provided infrastructure to work with high school teachers on a new transitional math course that combined high school math standards and college-level math competencies.

The course takes a hybrid approach. It presents content online in a high school computer lab with a teacher on hand and instructors from the community college come in once a week to help. The course is self-paced, and students can advance only once they have mastered each section.

“We finally found a way to teach the material in a way that students can learn,” said Mr. Denn.

The program prepares students for credit-bearing math courses at a community college or a four-year college, he said, enabling them to be eligible for entry-level courses such as statistics, college algebra, or precalculus.

“It works remarkably because the students know exactly what they have to do up front,” said Kevin Choat, a math teacher at Meigs County High School in rural Decatur, Tenn. In the first year at Meigs, all 57 students who took the SAILS class completed the coursework to be considered ready for college.

If students master all competencies, they can avoid two semesters of college remedial math, Mr. Denn said.

The course’s availability has quickly ramped up. With state support, it was scaled up last fall to reach 8,450 students in 118 high schools. By next fall, it is expected to serve 12,000 students in 150 high schools, with all 13 state community colleges taking part. The next step is to develop a companion course for English.

The SAILS initiative is one of several efforts in Tennessee to get students ready for college by improving collaboration between education sectors, said Melissa Stugart, who works with K-12 and postsecondary educators on alignment issues for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

For instance, some college professors at state institutions are working to align their entry-level courses and teaching methods with what incoming students will come to expect once they have completed a course of study aligned with the common core. (Tennessee is one of several states working on such alignment through a project called Core to College, which is supported by the Lumina Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, all of which have helped support Education Week reporting.)

The 2013 report by the Community College Research Center highlighted emerging work among states in both developing transitional coursework and administering early-college-readiness assessments. It noted that tests such as the sat, the act, or a “state accountability test with a college-readiness benchmark” can inform students of additional skills they need in math, reading, or writing to enter college without the need for remediation.

West Virginia has developed transitional courses, first in math in 2009 and then in English in 2010. Students who need extra help are identified through state accountability tests in 11th grade, said Kathy Butler, the vice chancellor for academic affairs for the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission.

In 2013, the state enacted legislation requiring all public high schools to offer transitional courses for students who do not meet college-readiness benchmarks.

Participants are assessed again at the end of the senior year. If the student then meets the benchmark, he or she is placed directly into college-level work and can skip remedial courses, added Ms. Butler. The collaborative effort is designed to create closer alignment between high schools and the state’s community colleges and four-year institutions.

Cultural Differences

To develop the courses, Ms. Butler sought high school teachers with college experience and college instructors who have worked in high schools to bridge the cultural differences.

The SREB initiative now being piloted in seven states was developed with support from the Gates Foundation. The math course features eight units, covering such topics as exponentials, quadratics, and linear functions. The literacy course covers reading and analysis in English, science, and history.

Teacher Amelia D. Abshire is piloting the SREB literacy class at Sam Houston High School in Moss Bluff, La. She said it’s designed for students in the middle, those who scored 18 to 20, out of a possible 36, on the act.

The curriculum was designed to align with the common core; it seeks to challenge students to compare texts and think more critically.

“It’s teaching how to figure out and work through different presentations of information and not be intimidated by it—like a lot of students would be in the first semester of college,” Ms. Abshire said.

In this first year, she attracted only three students to her course. But she hopes interest will increase quickly.

In an SREB math-readiness class at Madison Consolidated High School in Madison, Ind., teacher Kristin A. Harker reviews concepts from geometry, Algebra 1, and Algebra 2 with 16 students who already took those courses, but scored too low on a college-placement exam. The curriculum is designed to be student-centered, with hands-on work and real-world application of math concepts.

At the rate students are progressing so far, 90 percent will be ready for college-level math by the end of the course, Ms. Harker predicts.

“Students like the setup more than direct teaching,” she said. “They don’t fall asleep and zone out. Here, they are more engaged, and it allows them to be creative.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as ‘Transitional’ Classes Gain Ground in States as College-Prep Strategy


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