Forty percent of Colorado’s class of 2011 enrolled in a Colorado college or university needed remedial education courses in at least one subject in order to catch up to college-level work, according to a report released Tuesday by the Department of Higher Education.

Middle school math classroom
Kearney Middle School teacher Jordan Siebenaller works out problems with sixth-graders Orlando Ramirez (left) and Noelani Schumpf (right). Teachers screen students in sixth and seventh grade with potential for college and enroll them in online remedial math courses that are part of the federal GEAR UP program, which provides early remediation and support students years before they start college.

That’s a slight decrease from last year, when 41 percent of first-year college students needed extra help in the core subjects of reading, writing or math.

Despite the decrease, the new figures may jolt school board members, school and college leaders, policy wonks and parents. That’s because the state has changed the way it calculates remediation rates with the aim of making them more accurate. But by doing so, remediation rates for students from many districts look much worse.

“Increased remedial rates are not a reflection of a higher number of students needing remediation but are an example of improved data quality and measurement,” the report states.

Using the old methodology a year ago, only 31 percent of Colorado grads required remediation in at least one college course.

Under the new calculations, nearly two-thirds of Colorado high school graduates students enrolled in a state community college needed remedial coursework, compared to almost a quarter of those at a four-year institution. And most of these students required remediation in math — or 51 percent. Nearly a third of students needed remediation in writing, and 18 percent needed reading help. About 1 in 3 students need math remediation at the lowest level.

Remediation rates both reflect the quality of a high school curriculum and can portend a student’s ability to complete college in four years — if at all. For low-income students racking up debt to fulfill a college dream, required extra coursework and struggles to finish can create economic hardships. For Colorado employers, high remediation rates could mean fewer qualified and homegrown job candidates.

Financial aid does not cover remedial courses and students do not earn college credit for the courses. State policy requires that remediation must be completed within the first 30 credit hours.

The estimated total cost associated with remedial courses was approximately $58 million in 2011-12, with the largest portion of that paid in student tuition — or about $39 million. The state covered the remainder of the bill — or $19 million.

In the past, remediation rates were calculated based on student results on exams that indicated a student needed remedial courses. Students are screened on the front end based on lower ACT or SAT scores. State officials would start at the college level and work backward to try to figure out where the student attended high school.

This year the Department of Higher Ed tweaked its formula for calculating the rates. The changes and new figures were discussed  Tuesday at a press conference at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City, a school that is part of the federal GEAR UP program, which provides support for college-bound students, including counseling and remediation beginning in eighth grade.

Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia described the state as a leader in remediation reform by identifying students who need support much earlier and getting them through remedial courses successfully quicker.

At Rangeview High School in Aurora, for instance, students are able to complete remedial courses while still in high school.

“We have taken a hard look at where incoming eighth-graders are and placing them — according to data — where they need to be,” Rangeview Principal Ron Fay said at the news conference. “In the past kids fell through the cracks and were placed in higher level math classes than their skills allowed them to be successful at.”

Lauren Sisneros, pre-collegiate advisor for the Colorado GEAR UP program at Kearney, said as of April 1, 689 eighth- and ninth-graders in a dozen schools were participating in a new online remedial math course developed in partnership with faculty at Adams State University. So far, 100 students have completed one class, but by year’s end that figure is expected to rise to 187. Some 62 students are expected to finish their second remedial math course this year; and one student will have completed three by year’s end.

“Our focus is to close Colorado’s achievement gap, and help students successfully obtain a college degree,” Sisneros said.

A change in calculations

This year, rather than tracking students by looking back at their academic records, the state is starting fresh by focusing on a single graduating class — beginning with the class of 2011 — and tracking it forward. Not only is the state tracking test results that indicate a need for remediation, officials are now capturing students who are actually in enrolled in remedial classes — students who may have been missed in the old system. Of those students who took remedial courses, 59 percent completed courses successfully.

“We’re capturing kids that are enrolled in classes we hadn’t been counting,” said  Julie McCluskie, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, who oversees the Department of Higher Ed. “Those kids are demographically spread out from all school districts in the state.”

The new formula makes some districts look better — or worse — than they did before.

Larger districts, such as Greeley and Pueblo, saw the percentage of their graduates who need remedial coursework increase under the new calculations.

Aurora Public Schools, by contrast, saw improvement at all four of its high schools whose data was reported. That could be due to the district’s heavy emphasis on concurrent enrollment, which allows — and encourages — students to take college courses and earn college credit while still in high school.

Districts with the lowest remedial rates included Cheyenne Mountain 12 (15 percent) and the Boulder Valley School District (23 percent). The Adams 14 School district reported the highest remediation rate at 81 percent, followed among larger districts by Mapleton Public Schools at 65 percent. Thirty-four school districts with publicly reportable data had remediation rates of 50 percent or higher.

Remedial rates by high school ranged from a low of 2.2 percent at D’Evelyn Senior High School in the Jefferson County School District to a high of 95 percent at Emily Griffith Opportunity School in Denver Public Schools.

While not all districts look good, McCluskie said the Department of Higher Education had seen little pushback from districts on the new calculations.

“Everyone agrees with new method,” she said. “Nobody has questioned how we’re doing it. We’re making sure people understand the change.”

The new data set will help educators and policymakers pinpoint which schools’ graduates enter college prepared enough to bypass remedial courses and then dig into what those schools are doing, so that information can be shared.

Alternatives to remedial ed?

State officials and school leaders are also exploring other ways to help students get the support they need in college, such as more labs that connect directly to a specific course; or creating different pathways – particularly in STEM fields – for students. For instance, a student majoring in sociology may not need the same level of math as someone pursuing a degree in physics.

There is also a gender component to remediation. Female students — 42 percent — were more likely to need remediation than male students — 37 percent. More than half of those students requiring remedial coursework are women.

By ethnicity, black students had the highest remediation rates, followed by Hispanic students. According to the report, 90 percent of black students at two-year colleges and 56 percent of black students at four-year institutions needed remediation. That compares to  nearly 78 percent of Hispanic enrollees at two-year institutions who required remedial courses compared to 40 percent of Hispanic students at four-year institutions.

One reason the new approach to data is happening now is that Colorado has put a major emphasis on sharing data between the K-12 and college systems. State officials also crunched data using the new formula for the past three years to spot trends and to limit confusion with numbers released one year ago.

The new data only reflects students who attend public colleges in Colorado and excludes those who leave the state for higher education.

For instance, 57 percent of 2011 graduates enrolled in a postsecondary institution in Colorado or another state in the fall immediately after they graduated. And of those 2011 graduates who enrolled in college, 79 percent chose to attend a Colorado college or university, while 21 percent left Colorado for college.

2012 Legislative Report on Remedial Education by EdNews