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Colleges try new fixes to recurring remedial rut

Friday - 9/28/2012, 3:38pm  ET

ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
Associated Press

WEST PLAINS, Mo. (AP) - After leaving high school as a teen mother, Ashley McCullough is back on track to receive a two-year degree and work as a respiratory therapist. But she first had to conquer a remedial math class and its core lessons on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division _ the same basic skills her now 6-year-old daughter will soon start to learn in elementary school.

"I didn't have my act together," the 23-year-old said. "I had a baby at 16."

McCullough is far from alone at Missouri State University-West Plains, a two-year school nestled in the southern Missouri Ozarks near the Arkansas border where roughly three out of every four students take at least one remedial class.

That's well above the national estimates of remedial participation rates of 20 percent to 30 percent at four-year schools and more than 50 percent at community colleges. And like their counterparts at public flagship universities, rural teacher colleges and urban commuter campuses, many of McCullough's classmates will drop out before advancing to the next course, let alone graduate or move on to a four-year school.

It's forcing those on the front lines to try dramatically different approaches, from tweaking the standards that determine who needs extra help to allowing remedial students to simultaneously take the introductory classes they were once barred from.

The changes come as impatient lawmakers in states such as Connecticut, Kansas, Ohio and Tennessee are restricting or eliminating remedial classes at public colleges, or even threatening to withhold money from schools that don't do a better job of preparing unprepared students for the rigors of college. In Washington, President Barack Obama has challenged two-year and four-year schools to improve workforce training and college completion rates.

"When you have 35 percent of students passing your course, that is not acceptable," said Missouri State math specialist Thora Broyles. "Something had to be done."

At West Plains, the first step was hiring an administrator to focus solely on what practitioners prefer to call developmental education, rather than assign the task to a disinterested or overburdened faculty member.

The nomenclature is more than symbolic, said Mirra Anson, who was hired as the school's "dev ed" director thanks to a five-year federal grant.

"With remedial education, the connotation is we are making up for things they didn't learn in high school," she said. "But with dev ed, we are developing the skills they need to have to be successful. There's a different connotation there. There's no need to remediate what they didn't have in high school, because that part of their life is over. So let's move forward now and talk about what you need."

That means no more lectures for Broyles' remedial math students, who instead work on self-paced lessons in computer labs. Rather than lecture, Broyles instead works individually with students, aided by two tutors culled from the ranks of advanced students. The approach, developed at Virginia Tech Univeristy, is known as the "Emporium" model. Some students complete the two remedial classes and a required college algebra class in one semester; others take weeks before even moving past simple equations.

"I like the fact they give you the option to work at your own pace," said McCullough, who completed high school in a home-based program after her daughter's birth and now has another child who soon turns 2. "I probably wasn't on the same level that everybody else was (who had enrolled) right out of high school."

New West Plains students struggling with basic grammar, punctuation and argumentative writing now take the same freshman composition course as their more advanced peers, but separate into smaller groups _ with the same professor _ for a pass-fail developmental English class that builds on the work covered in the more advanced writing class. The "accelerated learning program" is modeled on a similar effort at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland.

Sydney Wilson, an aspiring teacher from Houston, Mo., expects to receive her associate degree in the spring and a four-year diploma from the school in 2014 after successfully completing the accelerated English course.

The teacher "could take everything we were writing about in the first English class, and in the second class, we'd just write about it in more detail," Wilson said. "So I wasn't writing two separate papers for each class, it was just tied together as one."

Like most schools, West Plains uses student scores on the ACT or other standardized college entrance exams to determine who needs additional help. That approach has come under fire from some reformers who question whether other measures, such as high school grade-point average or course evaluation, are predictors that are more accurate. Two recent studies by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College found that up to one-third of new students in the examined school systems were improperly placed in remedial classes.

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