Before Alie Garry could enroll at Tunxis Community College, in Farmington, Conn., the 18-year old Simsbury resident had to take a required standardized test called, ominously, the “Accuplacer.” It told her what she might not have wanted to hear - that she needed remedial classes in math and English. But now, three years later, she is grateful for the Accuplacer.
“If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know where I would be right now,” said Ms. Garry, who is president of the school newspaper and hopes to attend a four-year college in the fall. “If I had gone right into composition, there’s no way I would have passed.”
On Friday, the House of Representatives approved a bill supporters say will radically alter Connecticut’s model for remedial education. Tests like the Accuplacer would have less of an impact on determining student placement, and non-credit remedial coursework would largely be eliminated. The legislation, which passed 127 to 12 in the House, was approved by the Senate last month. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not indicated whether he plans to sign it.
Under current law, the standardized Accuplacer determines whether a student applying to community college needs remediation. Score below a certain benchmark, and a student must enroll in remedial math or English courses before they can progress toward a degree. The courses cost money and carry no college credits.
The new legislation cuts out most of these non-credit developmental courses and instead enrolls students with severe deficiencies in math or English in an “intensive college readiness program” before their semester begins.
Upon completion, a student would have open access to entry-level college courses, receive credits toward a degree and, if necessary, receive “embedded remedial support” within the classes.
While Ms. Garry’s developmental courses helped prepare her for college level work, she said many of her classmates were unhappy about having to spend student loan dollars on remedial courses with no credit.
“The idea of having to pay the extra money was definitely a sore spot,” Ms. Garry said.
State policy caps the number of times a developmental course can be taken at three, but from 2006 to 2011, roughly 20 percent of all remedial math students at Tunxis took a non-credit developmental course at least twice.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-Connecticut, a co-sponsor of the bill, said spending money on courses that don’t progress students toward a degree is one of many factors contributing to the high drop out rate among remedial students in state community colleges.
“Students are going into a system right now that is not progressing the vast majority of students toward a degree,” she said. “Right now in Connecticut, once students are referred to remediation, 87 percent do not graduate.”
Bye said she hopes embedded support structures within credit-based classes will present less of a psychological and financial barrier to students. But she noted the legislation remained purposefully vague about how to best provide that classroom help.
“We’re trying to leave that up to the campuses. To use their strengths to determine what’s the way to deliver side-by-side support,” she said.
Cathryn Addy, president of Tunxis Community College in Farmington, said about 70 percent of her students have to take one or more developmental courses in reading or writing. But she isn’t sure legislative mandates are the the best way to increase graduation rates, especially since the bill would require schools to figure out how to restructure their remedial systems by 2014.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that something needs to be done to help us get students to be more successful and achieve their goals,” she said. “I think there are a number of models that need to be examined.”
Addy said other models include smaller class sizes, one-on-one tutoring and more individualized help. But the biggest changes, she said, need to be made at the K through 12 level.
“We can only work with the students that come in through our door, and if the K to 12 system doesn’t step up, how can they expect us to magically transform these kids?”
Michael Meotti, executive vice president of the Board of Regents, said the bill was not a perfect fix, but it was a step in the right direction.
“It’s challenging the model of remedial education and identification in the state and that’s the first step,” he said, noting Connecticut spends roughly $8 million annually on remedial education classes for students who, by-in-large, never graduate.
Should the Governor sign the new legislation, some of this money would be freed up and directed toward intensive readiness programs and embedded classroom support. But Addy said she is not sure it will be enough.
“I don’t know if it will work. I think we have to assume it will,” she said. “While embedded support is very, very good, it is not free. And given the budget situation being what it is, we are concerned about how we are going to pay for this.”
Alie Garry plans to graduate this year with an associate’s degree in liberal arts and sciences. She says she is still waiting to hear back from Cornell, where she hopes to study new media and communications.
Garry said she is unsure whether the new legislation will be effective. But she acknowledges, like everyone else, that changes need to be made to the state’s remedial education system.
“It’s one of those subjects that I’m kind of on the fence on,” Ms. Garry said. “I took developmental courses. I know all the teachers who teach those courses and I know so many success stories coming out of there. It’s going to depend on the student. It’s going to depend on the school. And we can’t see if it’s going to work until it’s actually implemented.”