When You're Not Ready

More students at Florida's two-year colleges are failing college-level courses in the aftermath of a new state law that allows them to skip remediation.

June 25, 2015
Miami-Dade College
Miami-Dade College's Kendall campus

Colleges across Florida are getting a more accurate look at how changes in the state’s remedial law have affected students.

Administrators are seeing that traditional students who decided not to take developmental or remedial courses, after being advised to do so, were more likely to fail college-level or gateway courses.

For example, officials at Miami-Dade College found that enrollment in college-level math or intermediate algebra increased from 20,000 students this school year from just under 16,000 two years ago, which was the year before the controversial remedial legislation took effect. Yet the pass rate for those Miami-Dade students over the same time period decreased to 46.8 percent from 55.7 percent. 

Enrollment in developmental math decreased by about 42 percent, according to the college. 

“This would point in the direction that the drop in the pass rate has to do with students who are not possibly prepared for these courses and are now entering these courses,” said Lenore Rodicio, provost for Miami-Dade College’s academic and student affairs. “The ramifications are multiple. In the simplest case, the students retake the course, but retaking the course if you still don’t have the proper preparation just means more money wasted.”

There are other concerns besides the financial for students with remedial needs who fail these courses, such as a negative effect on retention and the length of time it may take them to complete their degree. 

In 2013, Florida legislators sought a way to help students save money and encourage them to stay in college. Developmental education courses, which are not credit bearing and don’t count toward a degree, would no longer be mandated for traditional high school graduates who don’t score well on the state’s standard placement tests. And the placement test that would determine whether a student should enter a developmental education course was no longer mandatory, either. Adult or nontraditional students, however, weren’t exempt from placement tests.

Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University, said he's not certain what legislators expected would happen. 

“This isn't rocket science. If students don't have the skills to complete a college course and you let them take the course, there's a likelihood they'll fail the course,” he said. “What did they expect? All along this legislation was questioned by experts in the field.”

The law, in essence, left the decision up to students to figure out if they were college ready, or not. Yet students often aren't sophisticated about the level of rigor in college courses, even in a remedial or developmental course, he said. 

Some two-year colleges in Florida, like St. Petersburg College, devised their own measurement that could be used to help recommend if students needed remediation. The college created a prediction model that used high school records to determine the likelihood of student success in college-level courses. That likelihood was determined using the historical performance of past incoming students with similar backgrounds. The prediction model determined whether students fit into three categories: “likely college ready,” “developmental education recommended” or “developmental education strongly recommended.” (Click here for a presentation from the college about how it adjusted to comply with the law.)

Plenty of students ignored those recommendations, which also increased their likelihood of not passing the college-level-equivalent course. There was a more than 15 percent difference between those students who followed the college's recommendation and those who didn't, with a 70.5 percent success rate for those who followed the recommendation compared to 55.3 percent. For those students who chose to take college-level math when they were advised to take the developmental equivalent, only 2 out of 10 passed with a C or better in the spring 2014 semester, according to the college.

St. Petersburg College -- Spring 2014 
  • Students recommended for developmental math but enrolled in college-level course -- 2 out of 10 passed with a C or better
  • Students recommended for developmental reading but enrolled in college-level course -- 5 out of 10 passed with a C or better
  • Students recommended for developmental writing but enrolled in college-level course -- 5 out of 10 passed with a C or better

“We were surprised when we literally had students who not only didn't take the recommendation in one of those areas, but they also didn't take it in two or three courses, so the success rate got progressively worse,” said Jesse Coraggio, vice president of institutional effectiveness and academic services at the college. That 55.3 percent success rate fell to 51.9 percent for those not taking two recommended courses. It dropped to 45 percent for three courses.

Student Choices

Researchers at Florida State University's Center for Postsecondary Success have been studying the effects of the legislation and found results across the state similar to St. Petersburg and Miami-Dade. Students are reluctant to enroll in developmental education courses even when advised to do so. The study pointed to future career goals as the most important factor to students. 

“Student enrollment in developmental education courses is a complicated decision process,” said Shouping Hu, the lead researcher at FSU, in a written statement. “A targeted discussion with students about occupational options can play an important role, as experienced academic advisers already know.”

Coraggio said there are other factors at play, such as the negative perception of taking remedial courses and the need to be on par intellectually with one's peer group. 

The negative perception also depended on the type of remedial course that was recommended -- students at St. Petersburg, for example, were less willing to take a developmental writing or reading courses.

“There's a little bit of a social stigma. It's easier for students to say they're not good at math. It's much harder to have conversations about having difficulty with writing or reading, even though at the end of the day we're talking about the college perspective of reading and writing,” Coraggio said. 

But the stigma of taking developmental or remedial courses was created by academics who at times looked down on or ignored the field, said Boylan. But he said there is also a stigma in failing college-level math.

St. Petersburg also learned that students who failed college-level math or English courses were more likely to put off retaking those courses or not return to college. 

For example, 412 student enrolled in a gateway math course this past fall despite recommendations to take developmental math. Of those students, 250, or 60 percent, failed to pass.

Among those who failed the course, 70 percent re-enrolled that spring. However, 50 percent of those who re-enrolled repeated the course. Three percent of them decided to take developmental math. And 47 percent of the students chose not to retake any math at that time, which is one reason the college is changing its policy on how long students have to retake a course, said Patrick Rinard, St. Petersburg's associate vice president of enrollment services.

“One of the things we were noticing for those students was that a certain percentage weren't enrolling the following term. They were choosing to take other courses,” said Coraggio. “It's like their heads are in the sand. They're putting it off.”

That's why the college is looking at changing its policy so that students will have to complete the required math or English courses before they progress too far in their education plans. For example, if students failed college math and didn't register the following term to retake the course, they would be required to complete math by the fourth term, Rinard said.  

Besides the potential for discouraging students not to continue on their educational path, failing a college course can hurt students financially. It's a catch-22 or a gamble for many students who seek to avoid remediation for financial reasons. 

“The majority of our students are on federal financial aid. So for a very unsuccessful attempt at a course, it does two things. One, it eats away at the number of credits or courses they can continue taking [that are] being paid completely by federal financial aid,” Rodicio said, adding that the effects for these students won't appear until they're pursuing a bachelor's degree at a four-year institution and that aid has been chipped away. “But it also begins to push them closer to falling into academic probation. Multiple attempts, dropping [grade point average] and withdrawing from courses means you're at risk of losing your aid.”

Boylan said some of these problems can be solved if developmental courses counted toward a student's degree plan. But that solution won't fix everything. 

And while there are plenty of colleges in the country that overplace students in remediation, or offer too many remedial courses, there are students who just aren't ready for college and won't be successful. 

“If you read at a fifth-grade level, you're going to have a tough time, and a lot of the legislation ignores that,” Boylan said. 

Many of the remedial reform efforts and approaches that have been applauded across the country are being used at Florida's colleges. Miami-Dade, for instance, uses a combination of accelerated, modular and corequisite courses. And they've seen success, with pass rates increasing by 4 percent in developmental math during the last three years, Rodicio said. 

“The improvement in developmental teaching has shown some return in terms of students being successful, but the challenge here is that our hands are tied in how we place students,” she said. “I understand the emphasis for the legislation and change was needed in developmental education and we needed to do better to help our neediest students succeed, but we've gone to the other extreme.”

St. Petersburg's new system features more advising and mentoring for students in developmental courses. It also includes accelerated pathways and corequisite approaches -- which are credit-bearing courses with additional tutoring and support -- to help those students become college ready. The pass rate in the college's redesigned developmental math course, for instance, jumped to 69.2 percent in 2013 from 60.3 percent the previous year. 

Coraggio said they're working with FSU researchers and others across the state to use the prediction model to better advise students on making the right choices. 

Miami-Dade College
 Developmental Education Enrollment      
  Math  Writing  Reading 
2012-13 to 2014-15   -42%  -44%  -46%
College-level Enrollment  Math  English  
2012-13 to 2014-15   +30%  +10%  
Pass Rates  Math  English  
2012-13 55.7% 74%  
2014-15 46.8% 70.3%   


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