This fall, community college students in Connecticut who take remedial classes will be part of a large and, some say, much-needed experiment.
About two-thirds of the students who go to community colleges in Connecticut are not prepared for college- level work. Many take remedial math or English classes, but only eight percent of those students received a certificate or degree in three years.
Connecticut is far from the only state dealing with this issue. To change that, a state law passed in 2012 created a new system for Connecticut students, and the idea is to get the remedial work done as quickly as possible.
Students will be placed into courses based on how they do on tests like the SAT or a test called the Accuplacer, as well other measures like high school performance. If they don't need much extra work, they'll take remedial courses that are embedded in college level classes. If they need more, they could take at most one semester of a remedial course in math and one in English. If there's a really big gap, they'll use a short transitional program.
Transitional students present the most difficult cases, said Roger Senserrich, policy coordinator at the Connecticut Association for Human Services. He recently wrote a report about how to help this particular group. They are typically adults who already have full-time jobs, and many of them are also poor or minority students.
“They haven't been in a school setting for a long time," Senserrich said. "When they test to get into a community college, they haven't done a math exam in five six years. It's just that they haven't looked at math, or haven't been writing essays in English, for so long that they need some transitional work before they get in.”
Some community colleges in Connecticut have started pilot programs this year to see what works. There are intensive two- to five-week math and English boot camps. Other students take online courses paired with a lot of tutoring. The results will decide what the new program in September will actually be like.
Senserrich said the programs all seem to be working. "It's a bit of an experiment," he said, "but it's an experiment that was necessary because the previous system was completely incapable of fulfilling its mission,” he said. “There was no effective remedial education system being done in Connecticut, pretty much at all.”
It's not yet clear how the remedial programs will be funded. The CAHS report noted that the state legislators gave $2 million for the pilot programs last year, and the full roll-out of the new law will probably need extra funding.
Connecticut is not the only state trying to improve remedial classes for community college students, said Susan Bickerstaff, a post-doctorate research associate at the Community College Research Center at the Teacher's College at Columbia University. The CAHS report refers to successful programs like one in Maine, which started in 2001 with state funding for colleges to get adults up to speed with college level skills in 12 to 18 months, with a lot of counseling and mentoring. Another example is a model from Washington state, which combined basic skills with college-level occupational classes.
“In all pockets of the country, colleges -- or individual faculty members, or states, or legislative bodies -- are looking into how to do this,” Bickerstaff said. “There's a wide variety of how folks are approaching it, which presents a nice context for researchers like us to be able to understand what works, or what appears to be working, and what doesn't.”
Some states have a more centralized approach with curriculum guides for colleges, whereas in others, the colleges or even individual teachers take the lead. Bickerstaff said no matter the approach, a crucial factor is making sure the teachers are well-versed in the changes, and have access to data to understand how they're doing so they can continue to refine the programs.
Senserrich of CAHS said there is no magical solution, but that changes to the current system are long overdue. He cautioned that we might not see obvious results about whether or not the new system is working until possibly three to four years from now, but pointed out it can't be worse than what's in place now.