by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
According to data obtained from the NC Community College System (NCCCS), 27 percent of 2016 high school graduates enrolled in one or more developmental/remedial math, reading, or English courses at a North Carolina community college last year.
The percentage has been on the decline in recent years. Thirty-four percent of 2015 high school graduates enrolled in one or more remedial courses. Two years ago, the rate was 42 percent. All percentages include public, private, and home school graduates from North Carolina, a handful of other states, and even other countries. That said, when I isolated identifiable North Carolina public high schools, the rate was 26.5 percent for the previous academic year.
Remediation rates have been on the decline since the rate hit 65 percent during the 2011-12 academic year. The rate began to drop after a change in NCCCS developmental course placement policy. NCCCS leaders introduced a “multiple measures” approach that changed the way that the state’s community colleges identify incoming students who may need to enroll in remedial English, reading, and mathematics courses. For example, students who graduated in the last five years are exempted from remediation placement testing if they completed four years of approved math courses in high school and earned a grade point average of 2.6 or higher. ACT or SAT scores are also considered.
While recent trends have been positive, the school-by-school rates tell a different story. Several Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools, for example, have alarming percentages of recent graduates enrolled in remedial English, reading, and math courses at state community colleges. Of the 80 graduates of West Charlotte High School, 73 percent of them enrolled in one or more developmental courses last year. Over half of 2016 graduates from Garinger, Harding, Phillip O. Berry, and West Mecklenburg high schools enrolled in developmental courses. Hopewell, Mallard Creek, Rocky River, South Mecklenburg, and Zebulon B. Vance were in the 40 – 49 percent enrollment range. Even prestigious Myers Park High School, which sent 126 students to North Carolina community colleges last year, had a developmental course enrollment rate of 28 percent.
Interestingly, students from other states enroll in developmental courses at higher rates than North Carolina high school graduates. While only a handful of out-of-state students enrolled in a North Carolina community college, data indicate that two-thirds of the students from Tennessee and over half of the students from Pennsylvania were enrolled in remedial courses. One possible explanation is that some states have more lenient credit hour or community college entry requirements that do not prepare them to meet NCCCS standards.
Certainly, not all the news is bad. Among high schools in rural communities that sent over 100 graduates to North Carolina community colleges, there were a few standouts. Only 18 percent of the 196 graduates of Richmond Senior High School in Richmond County enrolled in one or more developmental courses. South Caldwell High School, which sent 150 students to the state’s community colleges, was one percentage point lower. Alexander Central High School in Taylorsville bested both. Of their 119 graduates, only 12 percent needed remedial coursework.
Regardless of the reasons why the community college remediation rate dropped, it is encouraging that fewer high school graduates appear to need developmental coursework in English, reading, and math. A deeper dive into the data would be needed to determine the causes of this trend. Also, it would be sensible to track and report the experiences of students who are and are not required to enroll in developmental courses. According to the 2017 Performance Measures for Student Success, only 52 percent of the 2014 student cohort successfully completed credit-bearing English courses within their first two academic years. In math, that percentage drops to 30 percent. Do developmental courses make students more likely to successfully complete English and math courses? Moreover, are those who are exempted from developmental course placement struggling because they do not have the benefit of developmental course content?
That said, NCCCS institutions still required around one-quarter of recent high school graduates to enroll in one or more developmental courses. The remediation rate may be on the decline but remains worrisome, particularly for those who believe that a high school diploma should infer that recipients possess basic English and math skills.