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Community college students in Florida will soon be able to decide to skip remediation and enroll directly in credit-bearing courses, even if college advisers or placement tests say they have remedial needs. And recent high school graduates in the state won’t even need to take placement tests, because they will be deemed college-ready by holding a high school diploma.

The shifts in Florida’s remedial education policies are part of a broad bill the state’s Legislature passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last month. The legislation will have major ramifications for students at Florida’s 28 two-year colleges, and perhaps beyond.

“It may foreshadow many of the things that are about to happen around the country,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, an advocacy group that supported the Florida bill.

Among other provisions, the bill, SB 1720, featured a loosening of a proposed cap on general education credit hours for the state’s public institutions, back to 36 credits from a proposed 30 credits. That aspect was popular with college leaders. The remedial policies, however, have generated some controversy.

Under the legislation, colleges by 2014 will no longer be able to require recent high school graduates to take the state’s standard placement test or to enroll in noncredit remedial courses. Active-duty members of the U.S. military will also be exempt.

That change builds on previous legislation and essentially pushes the responsibility for remediation back to the public K-12 system in the state. A 2011 Florida law made college placement testing mandatory for most 11th graders. High school students who don’t make the cut are required to take courses during their senior year that are designed to address remedial needs.

When they arrive at Florida community colleges, recent high school graduates will still be able to take placement tests or enroll in noncredit remedial courses. They just won’t have to.

This approach contradicts popular ideas held by community college leaders around the country. They include: Students don't do optional and often make the wrong choices about courses; many high school graduates are not ready for college-level work; and students who start credit-bearing courses without adequate preparation face long odds of graduating.

The legislation differentiates between these traditional-aged students and their adult peers, which Jones said is an important innovation in the remedial reform movement.

Adult students will not be exempt from placement tests. If they demonstrate that they need remediation, the colleges will now be required to offer them a choice between several developmental education options. Those choices will include so-called “co-requisite” courses in which remedial students get extra help or do additional work in traditional, credit-bearing courses alongside non-remedial students.

College advisers can recommend that students take particular remedial paths, including noncredit courses. For younger students who no longer take placement tests, advisers can make recommendations based on other academic indicators, like students’ high school GPA or performance on standardized tests like the SAT.

The final call on remediation, however, will be made by students themselves.

More Flexibility

Some critics say the remedial legislation in Florida challenges community colleges’ commitment to open access by allowing less-prepared students to choose a path that will probably lead to failure.

Kenneth Ross, vice president for academic and student services at Polk State College, said there is widespread concern among community college educators in the state that the law threatens the “open door” mission of the colleges.

Many students will still arrive with serious remedial needs, Ross said. And the colleges will no longer be able to require that those students take noncredit courses to prepare for college-level work.

“We can advise them that this is a good thing to do,” he said. “But we can’t require it.”

As a result, Ross worries that many unprepared students will wash out after jumping right into credit-bearing courses.

However, Ross said there are several positive aspects about the bill. It offers welcome flexibility in how to deliver remedial education, he said in a written statement, such as allowing students to work more at their own pace.

William D. Law, president of St. Petersburg College, agreed that colleges needed more freedom in how they approach remediation. In particular, Law said the fixed semester schedule is often not appropriate for developmental courses.

“We won that argument,” he said. “It could not have been more straitjacketed.”

Law said he is confident that his college can add new remedial options and improve current ones to help more students succeed. And while the legislation doesn’t provide any new money for those experiments, he and other college leaders in the state said they will make do.

The legislation doesn’t threaten colleges’ open-access commitment, Law said. But he said it does make that mission “more tenuous” by taking remedial judgments out of educators’ hands and telling students “you have to choose.”

Big Problem, Big State

Remediation is major stumbling block to college completion. Only about one in four students who place into noncredit remedial courses will earn a degree within eight years of enrolling.

Research has also found that widely used placement tests may be steering too many students toward remediation, including those who could succeed in college-level courses.

"The evidence is overwhelming that remediation isn't working" Jones said.

Roughly three-quarters of incoming students at Florida’s community colleges currently place into at least one remedial course. And about 200,000 students in the state took one of the courses last year, the Orlando Sentinel reported. So even incremental fixes to remediation could have a substantial impact on college completion rates in Florida, which is the nation’s fourth most populous state.

Florida is among several states that have recently attempted to improve remedial success rates through legislation, including Connecticut and Colorado.

Whether or not the new approach to remedial education works in Florida may well be determined by academic advising, said several officials in the state.

“We’re going to really need to ramp up our advising,” said Julie Alexander, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the Division of Florida Colleges of the state’s department of education.

Tom LoBasso agreed. LoBasso, who is Daytona State College’s chief operating officer and provost, said the college will need to build upon the success it has had with its academic support center, which is already “hopping.” That means adding advising, supplemental instruction and tutoring capacity.

“We’re going to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to make sure we’re not setting students up for failure,” he said.

Semantics will be important in student advising, said Law. That’s because it is not realistic to think that many students will take the “optional” remedial path. Instead, he hopes colleges will present remediation suggestions as part of a range of choices.

“Let’s not tell them they can opt out of something,” he said.

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