Press Release

N.C. community college remedial rate rises faster than public school graduation rate

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Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing this Spotlight report.

RALEIGH — Enrollment in North Carolina community college remedial courses grew at a faster rate than the state’s public school graduation rate in a recent two-year period. The John Locke Foundation’s top education expert argues in a new Spotlight report that the numbers suggest school graduation standards remain “alarmingly low.”

“On the surface, North Carolina’s increasing graduation rate appears to signal a systematic improvement in our public schools,” said report author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. “In fact, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison suggested as much during the latest state budget debate. He disputed the notion that North Carolina’s public education system is broken. Instead Harrison cited the rising graduation rate while calling our education system a model for states across the country.”

“But quantity is not the same as quality,” Stoops added. “As public school districts have continued to increase their graduation rate, they have done so at the expense of providing graduates with basic literacy and math skills.”

Stoops focused his research on increases in both public school graduation rates from 2007 to 2009 and enrollment in state community college remedial courses in the following school years. “The state’s four-year graduation rate grew by 2.3 percent during that time period, from 69.5 percent to 71.8 percent,” Stoops said. “At the same time, enrollment in community college remedial classes — also known as “Developmental” classes — increased by an even faster rate.”

By 2009-10, more than one-half of students newly enrolled in a North Carolina community college took a remedial math course, while nearly 40 percent enrolled in a remedial English course. “In sum, 64 percent of new community college students enrolled in one or more remedial courses, a 7 percent increase from the 2007-08 school year.”

These data should raise red flags, Stoops said. “If more newly enrolled community college students are taking these remedial classes, this shows an increasing number of graduates from North Carolina public schools lack the basic skills needed to enroll in entry-level college courses,” he said. “Significant increases in English and mathematics remediation suggest that the standards for high school graduation remain alarmingly low. Low standards help provide marginal students an easier path to graduation, thereby increasing North Carolina’s graduation rate.”

Stoops intentionally limited his study to community college remedial courses. “For a number of reasons, new community college enrollment provides a better representation of the ‘typical’ North Carolina high school graduate than students who enroll directly in a four-year college or university.”

Students enrolled in one or more remedial courses at a community college account for about 20 percent of all high school graduates in North Carolina, Stoops said. “Since this counts neither students who need remedial coursework at a four-year school nor high school graduates who struggle with basic skills as they enter the work force, the full proportion of high school graduates who do not possess the requisite English, reading, and math skills they need likely exceeds 20 percent.”

Even remedial courses fail to help a significant number of students, Stoops said. “One state community college official has called these courses a ‘graveyard of dreams’ for many low-skilled students,” he said. “From 2007 to 2010, about 20 percent of the students enrolled in those courses failed to earn a C or better.”

Links between graduation and remedial work deserve much more scrutiny, Stoops said. “Remediation and graduation data are limited, and this study provides an overview of a complex issue,” he said. “Researchers should conduct much more comprehensive studies using multiple, multiyear student performance metrics.”

Stoops plans to spend more time studying various aspects of the North Carolina public school graduation rate. “Among the areas we’ll investigate are the impacts of state and local dropout programs, economic conditions, online learning, and changing school district demographics on North Carolina’s graduation rate.”

Meanwhile, parents and taxpayers should be wary of unproven claims about the reasons why North Carolina’s high school graduation rate has increased from 68.3 percent in 2006 to 77.8 percent in 2011, Stoops said. “Those two numbers are straightforward, but the factors contributing to the increase are not.”

“If taxpayers want North Carolina to be economically competitive, then they must not believe state education officials who call our system a model of excellence — despite clear signs to the contrary,” Stoops added. “A truly outstanding public school system would not require nearly two out of three new community college students to enroll in a remedial English, reading, or math class. Rather, those students should graduate high school with the knowledge and skills required to be successful in any post-graduate endeavor they choose.”

Dr. Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report “High School Graduation in N.C.: Quantity over quality?” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].

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