At the University of Texas at El Paso, as at many colleges, remedial math is often a gateway -- and many never manage to squeeze through. Of the UTEP students who failed remedial beginning algebra from fall 2006 to summer 2008, 72 percent are not registered there this fall. “If these students fail, we lose them. If they fail, they're gone. They drop out of school,” says Denise Lujan, UTEP’s director of developmental math.
“With the economy, with the future of Texas, with the changing demographics, what can I do to get them over that hump to pass and keep them going to school?”
In trying out different responses to that question, UTEP has explored new structures for its pre-college level courses, on the one hand, and, on the other, new strategies to divert students from the developmental education pipeline before they even enter it.
Confronted with problems of stigma, the financial costs incurred by students who place into developmental coursework, and political pressures to reduce spending on remedial education, UTEP is not alone in considering alternatives to the traditional structure -- in which students pass into college-level courses, or they don’t, end of story, says Deborah A. Santiago, vice president for policy and research at Excelencia in Education. “Those three reasons undergird these efforts to not be either-or, either developmental education, or none at all," continues Santiago, who wrote a recent report on colleges on the Texas-Mexico border, including UTEP.
"The reality is the existing paradigm, the existing structure, just isn’t working. And they’re willing to experiment and try.”
'You Just Keep Working'
Given the largely low-income population in the areas around it, UTEP comes down heavily on the side of access over exclusivity, accepting 96.7 percent of undergraduate applicants in 2006. Its federal graduation rate is low: The six-year graduation rate is 29 percent and the four-year rate only 4 percent. (UTEP’s president, Diana Natalicio, has publicly stated that 70 percent of the university’s undergraduate degree recipients aren’t counted in the calculation, which follows only first-time freshmen.)
Donna E. Ekal, the associate provost for undergraduate studies, says that her focus, likewise, is not on the federal rate, “but more so [on] reducing the time that it takes students to get into their for-credit courses, and reducing their time to graduation.”
Bigger-picture data correlating how UTEP's various changes to remedial education -- all fairly recent, and some newer than others -- have affected or will affect that metric are still being gathered. But, with the goal of reducing time to graduation in mind, Ekal divides UTEP’s efforts into four categories.
The first is the College Readiness Initiative, in which a dozen area school districts administer college placement tests in 11th grade, with some opportunity then for intervention pre-graduation. The second involves efforts to align the curriculum from K-12 to college through the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. The third and fourth involve changes to the first-year experience and course redesigns, respectively – including, in both cases, the creation of alternative streams for students who otherwise would sink significant time and money into a traditional remedial course sequence.
In math, for instance, students who place into remedial courses on their placement tests take a six-hour refresher during orientation, then retake the test. “Fifty-six percent of those who retook the test went up at least one course,” Ekal says of summer 2008 results. “Some of them didn’t take a math course senior year or they didn’t pay attention or it’s just not in the front of their brain."
For those students who still tested into remedial coursework after the refresher, “Basically we’re sitting outside the testing office and recruiting people and saying we have a deal for you,” says Lujan, the developmental math director. Free of charge for the past two summers, students could sign up to spend a chunk of time each week, including time in a supervised computer lab, wading through and demonstrating mastery of math content on a computer program known as ALEKS. "The point is to not have them sign up for a developmental course," says Ekal.
According to Lujan’s data, among the 56 students who placed into the highest level of remedial math (intermediate algebra), and took up the free ALEKS option this summer, 79 percent moved immediately into college-level math. In terms of success rates, of students who participated in the summer 2007 module and then took college-level pre-calculus, 62 percent passed it, compared to 44 percent who’d previously taken a traditional remedial math course.
There is likely a self-selection factor at play here -- only the most motivated students would sign up to spend long summer days solving math problems for zero credit, after all. This fall, UTEP piloted use of the computer program during a semester-long developmental math class. Lujan likes it so far because while a student might fail a traditional remedial math course and have to restart (or, more likely, not) from scratch -- covering those areas again they'd already mastered as well as those they hadn't -- with the computer program, Lujan says, “You just keep working.”
In English, UTEP has taken a different approach, diverting students from developmental writing courses not via intensive summer work but via supplemental instruction -- allowing students who miss the cut score for college-level work, but not by much, to enroll in college-level freshman English provided they concurrently enroll in a hybrid, online and face-to-face, developmental course.
"They didn't place college-ready, but they were close," says Cheryl Baker Heller, the director of developmental English at UTEP. “Our hope was if we took these students and did not place them into developmental English but placed them right into a college-credit course, with help, with a lot of supplemental instruction, that they would go on and do well. Because statistically students who place into developmental courses graduate at a much lower rate than those who place directly into college-level courses."
UTEP data show that 87 percent of students who completed college English concurrently with the supplemental instruction course passed (course drops aren't counted in that figure, which covers students from fall 2006 to summer 2008). Meanwhile, the number of traditional remedial writing courses has dropped, from 20 sections to -- this fall semester -- three, Heller says. (She credits that in part to better high school preparation. Through dual enrollment programs, many area high school students are coming to UTEP already having taken the freshman English class, she says.)
This fall, the developmental English program piloted another new approach, compressing a remedial reading course to half its original duration. The now eight-week course met six hours weekly and was linked to a reading-intensive college-level class. The premise, Heller says, is that while students might excel in the 16-week remedial reading course, that doesn't always help them with a linked sociology or history course, say: “They may have already failed it by the fourth week depending on how many tests were given.”
Effects of the compressed reading course on student performance in the linked college-level classes are still to be determined. It’s finals week at UTEP.
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