Which community college students need remedial teaching

Students who skip senior math, college placement standards fall short

  • Bill Clark, an associate professor at Harper College in Palatine, teaches a developmental math class for students like Kevin Mack of Rolling Meadows.

      Bill Clark, an associate professor at Harper College in Palatine, teaches a developmental math class for students like Kevin Mack of Rolling Meadows. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Alison Douglas teaches an English developmental composition class at Elgin Community College for freshman students who are not ready for college-level courses.

      Alison Douglas teaches an English developmental composition class at Elgin Community College for freshman students who are not ready for college-level courses. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Who needs remediation

    Graphic: Who needs remediation (click image to open)

Updated 3/7/2016 4:34 PM

Linear equations, quadratic expressions and ratios might be a pain to many high schoolers. Yet, not understanding those basic algebraic principles is causing them much more angst after graduation.

Nearly half of Illinois high school graduates enrolled in state community colleges require remediation, according to new data from the Illinois State Board of Education.


It shows 48.7 percent of nearly 40,000 high school graduates enrolled in community colleges required remediation in at least one subject -- 41.1 percent in math, 20.3 percent in communication and 16.1 percent in reading. In the suburbs, depending on their high school, 16 percent to nearly 68 percent of graduates attending community colleges are taking remedial classes, again, mostly in math.

Students skipping math their senior year and "arbitrary" college placement standards account for the abundance of students needing help, educators say. Some, though, suggest remediation in general is a bad idea.

For now, suburban high schools, with the support of community colleges, are addressing the problem by offering dual-credit opportunities and college-level remedial classes during senior year. Also, training is being provided for high school teachers and counselors to better understand college entrance requirements.

At Round Lake Senior High School, 67.5 percent of graduates attending College of Lake County in Grayslake need remedial help -- primarily in math (53.6 percent) -- though some students also needed to make up for poor reading and communication skills.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

This year, the school introduced a new applied math course for struggling students who might not be on a college trajectory and hired a college and career counselor to work with students in grades six through 12 to help them choose career pathways, said Principal Donn Mendoza.

Students, he said, also can take free math remedial classes at CLC in the summer.

Round Lake middle school students now can visit colleges for career exploration and use an online "career cruising" software to help identify fields of interest. And all high school students meet with counselors to set goals after graduation and work toward meeting them.

"We want our kids to be thinking about their future earlier," Mendoza said. "Now we are engaging in planning more than we ever have."

Four years of math

Some educators and advocacy groups are calling for a change in state law, which now requires only three years of math to graduate high school. They say if students avoid taking math during senior year, they tend to forget concepts; that yearlong gap in learning hurts when they take college placement tests.


Through Elgin Community College's Alliance for College Readiness, officials have seen fewer students in remediation classes. The program is a partnership of teachers and educators from ECC and public school districts in its service area: Elgin Area School District U-46, Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, St. Charles Community Unit District 303, and Burlington-based Central School District 301.

The proportion of high school graduates who were completely college-ready grew from 24 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2015, said Julie Schaid, ECC associate dean for college readiness and school partnership. Three of the alliance partners -- districts 300, 301, and 303 -- have adopted a fourth-year high school math curriculum, developed by the alliance's math team and aligned to Common Core State Standards and ECC's readiness criteria for college-level math. In three years, enrollment has grown from 300 to 800 students this year, Schaid said.

ECC also is debuting a new math course this fall allowing students going into non-STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields to complete their developmental math requirements in one semester.

Harper College in Palatine similarly has been working with Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Township High School District 211 and Barrington Unit District 220 to reduce the numbers of freshmen students needing remedial coursework.

As a result, from 2010 to 2014, the college has seen a 27 percentage point increase of high school graduates placing into college-level math, Harper associate provost Brian Knetl said.

"We've implemented for some of the high schools placement testing in the junior year so students have some sense of what their level of college readiness is," he said. "It's that fourth year of math that we are finding out is a really significant predictor of college-readiness."

Redefining ready

Placement in English and math remedial classes alone is not an accurate indicator of how ready students really are for college-level work because educational institutions have varying standards -- some "arbitrarily high" -- of acceptable scores for college readiness, educators say.

For instance, DuPage County school superintendents have been asking College of DuPage to lower its requirement of a 23 score on the ACT math test to get into a college credit-bearing course.

"That's what elevates the math (remediation) numbers," said Scott Helton, superintendent of DuPage High School District 88, which includes Addison Trail and Willowbrook high schools. "The national college readiness cut score is 22."

More than 43 percent of District 88's graduates attending community colleges need math remediation. Helton says the traditional model of college remediation just doesn't work anymore. Low-income, black and Latino students are affected the most by the high bar for college entrance and often end up losing interest, running out of financial aid or dropping out, he said.

"They have these artificial barriers that drive these kids into remedial courses," he said. "Many community colleges are getting rid of this old remediation model and they are putting kids into credit-bearing courses with supports.

"Using arbitrary scores, using a 23, doesn't make sense to us. In every high school around here, we've all gotten rid of our remedial programs. All the national research says you have to be in more rigor in order to grow."

In District 214, where more than 35 percent of the district's high school graduates attending community colleges require remediation, those same students could be deemed ready for the same courses at a state university because "there are no universal standards," said Lazaro Lopez, associate superintendent.

"I don't believe that the data that we see is entirely representative of our students, or even statewide," he said.

Lopez said the current approach to college remediation doesn't take into account whether students are doing college-level work in high school, but rather is predicated on test scores.

Nearly two-thirds of District 214 graduates have taken an Advanced Placement math class or dual-credit English and math classes in partnership with Harper College in Palatine, he said.

"That is a more accurate assessor of their being college-ready," Lopez said. "I really don't believe developmental education has any place in our college campuses. Ultimately, it really is about us redefining senior year of high school across the state to make sure that students have access to Advanced Placement, dual-credit courses, and developmental education courses at the high school taught through a community college."

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.