Tennessee scraps classes standing between less-prepared students and college credit

When classes start at Tennessee’s community colleges next week, the path to a degree or certificate will have a new starting point.

More than 70 percent of the state’s students starting a two-year degree program have test scores showing they aren’t ready for college-level math or English courses. In past years, those students started college in remedial classes, where the goal is to build the basic skills students need in credit bearing classes that will count toward a degree.

Starting this fall, students will no longer have the option of taking a traditional remedial class, which normally take a full semester and cost as much as a college-level course without earning the student any college credits.

graduation-gapInstead, students will take regular introductory math and English courses. If their ACT scores would have placed them in a remedial class in the past, they’ll also have to enroll in a “learning support” class focused on strengthening students’ basic academic skills.

Traditional remedial classes can send a devastating message to new college students, especially if they’re the first in their family to pursue a degree, said Tristan Denley, vice president of academic affairs for the Tennessee Board of Regents.

“It’s often perceived that they thought they enrolled in college, but they’re not ready for college,” Denley said. “Many of those students, deep down, might not have been sure they were college material themselves, before you know it it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

The approach, known as co-requisite remediation, is catching on across the country in states like Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Minnesota.

Denley said Tennessee already has years of data showing the change is working for students.

The co-requisite experiment started five years ago with the state’s four-year colleges. At Austin Peay State University, the percentage of students needing remediation who went on to pass an introductory statistics course rose from 8 to 65 percent, for quantitative reasoning the pass rate rose from 11 to 78 percent and in English it went from 49 to 70 percent. Under the new model, the passing students completed the college-level courses in one semester instead of two. Nine of the state’s community colleges piloted co-requisite classes last year and saw similar results, Denley said.

“It’s a national phenomenon that there are many more students who simply don’t complete remediation than there are who fail it,” Denley said. Even if they do complete the course, “there’s attrition, life happens, people don’t always complete an entire sequence of classes.”

The state is betting that this and other reforms can boost graduation rates as a statewide program called the Tennessee Promise is drawing hundreds more freshmen to community college campuses this fall. The program guarantees two free years of community college to high school grads who have met criteria like maintaining a C average, performing eight hours of community service and filling out the federal application for student aid.

One argument against the the program has been the community colleges’ low graduation rates. In 2013, just over 13 percent of full-time students completed a degree or certificate at the schools, the system’s highest completion rate since 2006.

But, graduation rates ticked up in 2014 at more than half of Tennessee community college campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Leaders point to the co-requisite approach and other reforms as the reason.

But Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University, cautions there isn’t enough data to abandon the other ways colleges have been preparing students for credit-bearing classes just yet.

“I don’t have a problem with the co-requisite model as one of many things that will probably work,” Boylan said. “Unfortunately what’s being done in Tennessee and other places is that they’re taking a model that failed because it was a one-size-fits-all model and replacing it with another one-size-fits-all model.”

Boylan said it’s unclear whether learning support classes work for students who have a lot of catching up to do or who have no family members with prior college experience.

“It’s ironic that people are saying ‘we’re doing this in the service of getting more low-income students through college,’ but the research doesn’t currently say that it gets more minority and low-income students through college,” he said. “More student pass the courses, but we haven’t taken a good look at who those students are and who they aren’t.”

Tennessee is looking at who does and doesn’t pass the courses, Denley said.

“It isn’t the case that a student who has an 18 on the ACT (a score of 19 is considered college-ready) passes the class at the same rate as a student who has a 12 or 13,” Denley said. “What is surprising is that still more than half of students who had a 13 are passing the credit bearing class. It’s a night and day comparison with what was happening before.”

Denley said the state’s data didn’t show significantly different pass rates for students based on age, race or gender either.

Another argument for Boylan’s “wait and see” attitude is that this fall every student needing remediation on every campus will be using the learning support program — not just students in pilot courses.

“Generally for pilots, they take some of their best instructors who engage in innovation and support those instructors in their program and often the results are successful,” he said. Sustaining the success across an entire system isn’t always as easy.

Denley pointed out that Tennessee’s colleges and universities have been tweaking the co-requisite program since it started. He said they’ll be watching to see where it’s working best and then spread that news across the system.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.