Not long after Yesenia Sanchez started classes at a community college in Maryland, she learned that she could skip a requirement that has been the bane of thousands of students: remedial math classes that help make up for gaps in high school learning but don’t provide college credit.
“It was just like the best news ever,” Sanchez said.
Many of her peers at Montgomery College are not as fortunate. More than 60 percent of Montgomery County graduates require remedial math courses that take a hit on precious tuition dollars and slow progress toward a degree, according to the college’s most recent figures, from 2013.
The math relearning at Montgomery College can last as long as three semesters, depending on where a student is placed. But the problem is not just math. Nearly 30 percent of Montgomery County graduates need remedial English courses, and 26 percent need remedial reading classes, the figures show.
“Those are concerning numbers,” said Christopher Barclay, a Montgomery County school board member. “Those are numbers that have to change. We have to do a lot of work in our middle schools and secondary schools.”
The problem is not unique to Montgomery or to Maryland, with some experts estimating that nearly 60 percent of community college students nationally require some remediation.
Concerned about the effects remediation can have on students — with many not completing such requirements — some community colleges are examining new approaches that can help students progress toward their academic goals. One idea being tested in Montgomery County takes a broader view of how to measure who really needs remediation. Other community colleges across the country have experimented with similar ideas.
Instead of relying on standardized test results, the pilot program also looks at high school transcripts. If students earn an A or B in Algebra 2, for example, they might be allowed to move into college-level math. If students earn similar grades in advanced placement or honors English and world history, they might be able to go into college-level English.
“We have come to believe that having a high-stakes test is not the best way to measure someone’s mathematical competency,” said John Hamman, dean of mathematics and statistics at Montgomery College. “Trying to look at a longer history of their work makes more sense than what they are able to do on one particular day.”
For Sanchez, the opportunity has made a difference.
The 19-year-old from Montgomery Village said she became excited when she received an e-mail saying her Algebra 2 grade made her eligible for college math, even though her Accuplacer score had fallen short. Though nervous, she signed up for a college-level math course. She earned a B. “Now I get to take other classes I need,” she said.
The program that helped her skip remedial math follows a report by the Montgomery County Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight on developmental education at Montgomery College.
The report, issued in October, supported the college’s pilot program using multiple ways of assessing whether students need remediation rather than relying on placement tests and other standardized exams. It said a majority of students don’t progress out of such classes within two years and pegged the 2013 cost of such courses at Montgomery College at nearly $15 million.
More than 10,000 Montgomery College students were enrolled in remedial math courses in 2013, according to the report. “One cost which is difficult to calculate is the student’s cost: in addition to tuition and fees, students forego wages and delay their progress through college because of remediation,” the report said.
Montgomery College, which was developing approaches toward remedial courses, started looking into alternative placement measures a year ago, Hamman said.
The pilot program began in the spring with a small group and is part of a collaborative effort with the county’s public school system. Seventeen of the 19 students who participated, bypassing remedial courses, earned a C or higher in the college-level math class they took instead.
“That is a very promising result,” said Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs at Montgomery College. No placement method is error-free, he said, but “the idea is, how do you minimize the errors?”
Research indicates that more students are assigned to remedial courses than need to be, said Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. But college readiness remains a major issue, she said.
“We certainly, as a nation, have not decided what college-readiness means, and community college students get caught in that squeeze,” Edgecombe said.
Educators say that some students may not grasp the stakes of college-placement exams, not understanding that their scores could steer them into semesters of remedial work.
Other students may have learning gaps, squeaking by in a high school course, for example, or not retaining what they learned.
Recent data released by Montgomery’s school system showed that although 91 percent of high school students passed the Algebra 2 course, 58 percent failed the June semester final.
Some point out that remedial courses can be helpful to students who need to catch up.
“I think a number of people, rightly so, are concerned about the number of remedial courses that seem to be necessary,” said Michael A. Durso, the school board’s vice president. But developmental courses can be important, he said. “Nobody wants to have remediation. But some kids figure things out later.”
For the fall semester, more than 1,400 new Montgomery College students from Montgomery County’s class of 2015 have been tapped for remedial math classes. About 300 earned A’s or B’s in Algebra 2, with about 150 of them expected to participate in the pilot program. The math program is not open to students pursuing math- and science- related majors. Hamman said representatives from Montgomery College and the county school system have started to meet to discuss curriculum alignment.
Erick Lang, the county school system’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said that although there is “work to do” to improve learning, he hopes the new approach will have a positive effect. “It was a small pilot,” he said, “but overall, the kids who went in were very successful.”
Sanchez, the student who skipped remedial classes, said she looks forward to a second college math course this fall. “I’m kind of nervous because it’s something totally new for me,” she said. “But I think I am ready for it.”