Rethinking remediation: Colleges look for new ways to help at-risk students


Each fall, more than 2,500 Idaho freshmen begin their college careers by taking remedial classes.

That number hasn’t moved much — even as the state has launched a bevy of programs, both in K-12 and in higher education, all designed to help students succeed in college.

The College of Western Idaho has the highest remediation rate of Idaho’s two- and four-year colleges.

Students have to pay for remedial classes, but receive no credits for passing them. The remedial courses are a precursor to taking core classes in English or math. For some students, however, a heavy load of remedial work poses an obstacle to getting a degree.

In the short term, college administrators are trying to revamp remedial classes, tying them more directly to a student’s core classes.

Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter’s higher education task force is taking a long view. Several recommendations are designed to reduce the need for remedial classes — eventually. But none of the task force’s 12 recommendations directly address remedial courses.

The remediation challenge

In 2016, 38 percent of first-year college students took at least one remedial course. That’s a slight drop; from 2012 through 2015, that number hovered from 39 to 41 percent.

But these numbers aren’t across-the-board, by any means. Not surprisingly, community college students more often need remedial help; 60 percent of freshmen at two-year schools were assigned to a remedial course, compared to 22 percent of freshmen at four-year schools.

For the two-year schools, remediation poses a particular challenge.

On the one hand, many new students need extra help to get up to speed on college-level work, or sharpen math skills they might not have picked up in high school. On the other hand, schools need to figure out how to help students make a successful transition from non-credit remedial classes to for-credit core classes.

The College of Southern Idaho tracked new students who took remedial classes in the fall of 2009. Six years later, only 55 percent of the students who took a remedial English course eventually passed a college-level English course. In math, that number was 52 percent. These 2015-16 numbers may appear troubling, but they actually represent double-digit improvements from 2013-14.

Debbie Critchfield, State Board of Education member

Remediation poses another challenge. When new students have to spend time and money on classes that get them no closer to a degree, they may be more likely to drop out.

“A lot of times, a student will get discouraged,” said Debbie Critchfield, a member of the State Board of Education.

Remediation remedies

Critchfield says it’s impossible to separate remediation from retention — keeping students in school, working toward a degree. Retention, in turn, factors into the state’s long-touted “60 percent” goal. Since 2010, Idaho has been pushing to get 60 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds to obtain a postsecondary degree or certificate.

If Idaho is to get closer to that 60 percent goal — and improve on a 2015 completion rate of only 42 percent — remediation is no small piece of the equation.

Over the past few years, the state’s community colleges have been busy trying to rethink remediation.

One common approach is a “co-requisite” course. Students take a remedial course at the same time as a college-level course, sometimes with the same instructor.

The co-requisite approach has several advantages, college officials say. Students can immediately apply what they learn in a remedial class to their college-level work — while it’s fresh in their minds. When instructors have the same students in remedial and college-level classes, they can tailor teaching methods to student needs.

Another advantage is social. The co-requisite approach “normalizes” the idea of seeking extra help, and puts students into a supportive group, said Larry Briggs, dean of general studies at North Idaho College.

The College of Western Idaho uses a co-requisite approach in math and English, and has shifted all of its English work to a co-requisite model. The results have been “remarkable,” said Laura Stavoe, CWI’s dean of English and humanities.

Under the old remediation model, fewer than 20 percent of students passed English 101. With the co-requisite approach, this 2016 pass rate improved to 70 percent. In a second-level composition class, remedial students did just as well as students who didn’t require extra help.

Still, Stavoe cautions against relying solely on the co-requisite approach.

“I think what made this successful was that faculty researched and designed a model based on the needs of our students and the positive data surrounding that model for student populations like ours,” she said. “ It isn’t the only effective method.”

In Twin Falls, CSI has tried several approaches, in addition to co-requisite classes. Students can take extra hours of math classes, free of charge, in remedial and college-level classes. CSI ditched its old schedule — which required remedial students to take multiple semesters of remedial classes before starting college level work.

The changes are making a difference, even in those 2015-16 pass rates, said Heidi Campbell, CSI’s associate dean for STEM. She attributes the improved English pass rate to the co-requisite program, and the improved math pass rate to dropping the multisemester remediation timeline.

An ‘ever-present item’

When the State Board makes its rounds across the state, meeting on Idaho’s college campuses, remediation is a recurring topic during schools’ annual reports. Board members want to pour over the numbers. They want to hear whether co-requisite courses and other programs are making a difference.

“(It’s) an ever-present item,” Critchfield said.

But for State Board members, and the rest of Otter’s 35-member higher education task force, remediation was a side issue of sorts. The group’s recommendations weigh in on everything from college scholarships to the higher education formula — and pushing back the target date on the elusive 60 percent graduation goal.

The recommendations do not discuss remediation, at least directly. Critchfield concedes that point, but she says there’s more to the task force’s work.

Critchfield worked on a subcommittee that focused on Idaho’s K-20 pipeline. She says all of her group’s ideas tie back to remediation in some way. And she says the goals are designed to stop some of the fingerpointing between the K-12 system and the higher education system.

Some task force goals are more immediate, such as a required course that will help high school seniors “in their choices beyond high school.” Others are decidedly long-term; the task force makes a non-specific push for early education programs that will prepare young students for the rest of their school career. The recommendation stops short of mentioning state-funded pre-K, an idea that has gone nowhere in the Idaho Legislature.

In essence, the task force’s report leaves remediation responsibilities to the individual schools. And those schools’ approaches will probably differ. What’s needed at a CWI, with the state’s highest remediation rate, might not be needed a few miles to the east, at Boise State University.

“Even in our state, it still looks different,” Critchfield said.

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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