by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
Last year, 34 percent of 2015 high school graduates enrolled in one or more developmental math and/or English courses at a North Carolina community college. This is a sharp decrease from the year before when 42 percent of 2014 high school graduates enrolled in at least one remedial course. Both figures include public, private, and home school graduates from North Carolina and a handful of other states.
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 the NC Community College System (NCCCS) developmental course placement policy.
In 2010, NCCCS began a review of student placement and remedial course design. Based on the recommendations of policy and subject-area experts, system leaders approved a number of new initiatives designed to better serve underprepared high school graduates.
Three years later, NCCCS leaders introduced a multiple measures policy that changed the way that the state’s community colleges identify incoming students who may need to enroll in remedial English and mathematics courses. According to the NCCCS SuccessNC strategic plan, students who graduated in the last five years will be exempted from remediation placement testing if they completed four years of math (including Algebra II) in high school and earned a grade point average (GPA) of 2.6 or higher. Today, all NCCCS institutions have implemented this placement policy.
While the policy revision was responsible for the initial decreases, it does not explain the 8 percentage point drop in the rate over the last two academic years. The reasons for this trend require further investigation.
Obviously, schools may be doing a better job of preparing students for college-level English and math. State testing data, however, indicates that only around half of high school students were “career and college ready” in math and English. These scores may not reflect the skills and knowledge of the community college populations in question. Moreover, one must consider the possibility that state tests are inaccurate indicators of career and college readiness.
Moreover, it is not due to a change in the number of high school graduates enrolled in a community college. The number of 2015 high school graduates enrolled during the 2015-16 academic year was nearly identical to the number enrolled the year before. There also does not appear to be significant changes in the number of students who graduated from low-performing high schools and subsequently enrolled in a North Carolina community college. It’s possible that the students in the 2015-16 population are significantly different than those in the 2014-15 population, but there is not enough data available to know for sure.
Another plausible explanation is that an increasing number of students may qualify for the exemption, that is, complete four years of math and earn a GPA of 2.6 or higher. Again, it would require additional data to prove or disprove that hypothesis.
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 and math. That said, NCCCS institutions still required around one-third 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 possesses basic English and math skills.