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Voices: Reducing the need for remedial ed

The executive director of Colorado GEAR UP, Scott Mendelsberg, highlights attempts around the state to prepare students for college and reduce the need for remediation.
Quick, what is one-half divided by one-sixth?

If you encountered that question on a test today, how long would it take you to reach back across your years of education to remember the formula for multiplying fractions?

Many students in Colorado’s graduating class of 2011 would have trouble with that question, based on the results of the annual remedial education report released April 16 by the state Department of Higher Education.

The report found 40 percent of the Class of 2011 who enrolled in a state college or university needed remedial help before they were ready for college-level work. Most of those – 51 percent – needed help in math.

Unfortunately, these numbers shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been involved in education for long. As the former principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Denver, I was as frustrated as my students – many of them the first in their families to go to college – by this added obstacle to higher education.

But I believe more attention needs to be paid to the work now being done in K-12 districts and on college campuses across Colorado to reduce the need for remedial courses and to lessen the time students spend in these classes.

These efforts are thoughtful, bold – and unprecedented in our state’s history. Consider three examples:

1. The Colorado Community College System has approved dramatic changes in how remedial classes are delivered. Students who need help will no longer be placed in courses that can consume up to four semesters.

Instead, community colleges by fall 2014 will offer individualized solutions that include brief refresher courses or placement in a college-level course with an accompanying support class. The goal is completion of any remedial work in one semester or less.

2. Partnerships between K-12 and higher education have resulted in efforts such as those in Aurora Public Schools, which is posting lower remediation rates. In APS, students whose 11th-grade ACT scores show they may need remedial help can take the courses as high school seniors.

For example, students can take a remedial math course in the fall followed by a college algebra course in the spring.

3. More than a dozen middle and high schools across Colorado are tackling the remediation issue even earlier, through participation in the federally-funded Early Remediation Pilot. In this initiative, nearly 700 eighth-graders and ninth-graders are enrolled in math classes that mirror the work done in remedial math courses on college campuses.

This effort – a partnership between Colorado GEAR UP, which I lead, and Adams State University in Alamosa – is in its second year. As students complete the classes, they receive a transcript from Adams State documenting their work.

The transcript is important because it allows our students to begin taking college courses as early as grade 10, with GEAR UP picking up the tab. So students are putting their math skills to work right away.

Statistics show our students are the most likely to need remediation – they’re typically low-income, minority and the first in their families to go to college.

We’ve proven our strategies can help them succeed: GEAR UP students graduate high school, enroll in college and persist in college at higher rates than state averages. And GEAR UP students graduate high school having already earned 17 college credits.

But many of them still need remediation in college, whether because they are poor test-takers or because they forgot – like many of you, perhaps – the simple trick behind dividing fractions.

These three examples aren’t the only efforts underway in Colorado to address the remedial issue. But they highlight the promising work that can be done when K-12 and higher education join forces for better outcomes for students.

Oh, and the trick behind dividing fractions? Flip the second fraction upside down and then multiply it by the first fraction. So 1/2 multiplied by 6/1 equals 6/2 or 3.

Anybody ready for division with fractions and whole numbers?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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