In an interview with NC Policy Watch, Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, talks about various efforts underway to address the system’s 65 percent remediation rate and ensure more students end up with the credential they need to either enter the workforce or attend a four-year university.
NC Policy Watch: Why is the remediation rate so high?
Ralls: I think there are a variety of reasons. One of which is the lack of connections. … We were doing lots of assessments in public schools and in high school, and then students were coming to us, and we were giving them entirely different assessments. We weren’t really using the same language, and we weren’t necessarily making the types of connections that needed to be made to help address those issues earlier on for students.
NC Policy Watch: The K-12 system is developing a transitional remediation course for high schools students. What do you think of that?
Ralls: I think it’s a very important step. … It will bear fruit as (we) continue to make that connection between public schools and community colleges in terms of what is college ready.
One of the things we’ve been very careful about in the community college is not to say this is just a high school issue. We’ve had to look in the mirror ourselves and say, ‘What have we not been doing, what can we do better?’ … We have so many students going into developmental education and not nearly enough coming out. So it’s about us looking in the mirror as well.
NC Policy Watch: In the course of looking in the mirror, what have you begun to do differently?
Ralls: We started with developmental math because looking at the data we saw that was a particular problem area. … We pulled together 18 faculty, (and) for six months they just tore apart the entire developmental education curriculum. We gave them some charges in terms of specific principles. We said this really should not take any student longer than one year. We said it needs to be more modular with the opportunity for students to take smaller chunks rather than whole semesters. In other words, if a student is struggling in fractions, then we should be able to give them a fractions course in a quicker period of time and get them in and out.
[The faculty] put all the competencies on the board and they completely rearranged the whole program based on much clearer competencies, getting rid of overlaps between courses, trying to make sure we weren’t teaching the same thing multiple times and really making the curriculum more efficient, more relevant and more specific.
There’s a group that’s just completed a similar kind of effort for reading and English.
NC Policy Watch: When do the new remediation classes go into effect?
Ralls: This spring about 90 percent of our colleges will be teaching the math modules, and all of them (will be teaching them) beginning next year. … Colleges will begin piloting the new English modules, I believe, next semester.
Another thing that’s fundamental about some of the redesign is not just what colleges are teaching but the way they’re teaching it. … You can think of it like flipping the classroom in K-12. It’s more of a model with computer labs and students moving at their own pace and using more sophisticated computer technology where the instructors are not so much standing in front of the class lecturing, but students are doing a lot of math using computer tools, instructors are roving around monitoring them and providing them one-to-one assistance, sometimes stopping the class to show a particular point.
Probably one of the best examples I can give you would be Nash Community College. They call it the math tank. They’ve really done some unique things (in terms of) the way they teach, not just what they teach.
NC Policy Watch: You’re also developing a new placement test that correlates with the new developmental coursework. How is the test different?
Ralls: We had been using nationwide tests designed to predict whether or not a student is math ready or English ready to move forward. What is different about using diagnostic tests (is that they pinpoint) the specific area that the student needs help on. … We don’t necessarily have to boil the ocean and have the student take two semesters worth of classes and learn everything. If they only need a brush up in a certain area, we can be much more diagnostic, if you will, about what they need to work on and get them in and out in a much quicker and more efficient way.
NC Policy Watch: In addition to developing a new test, you’re planning to use multiple measurements for placement, including grade point average, or GPA. Why the shift?
Ralls: We’ve put a lot of reliance, high stakes reliance on these tests. … Tests will measure their cognitive ability to do math or English, but it doesn’t measure so much their perseverance, their grit. There are a lot of things that lead to student success and there are other things we ought to factor in. … GPA is seen as a metric that captures a lot of things – cognitive intelligence but also student perseverance and grit and all that combination of things that leads to student success.
That’s what we’re really after, their ability to move forward and graduate and complete, so that’s why recently we’ve been involved in these discussions about how we move forward and factor in GPA in concert with a new form of testing that we’re using that will be available soon, which is our diagnostic test.
NC Policy Watch: These seem like common sense measures. Why have they not been done before?
Ralls: Perhaps for community colleges in the past we’ve been so focused on being access oriented, we haven’t paid enough attention to how many students move all the way through and complete our programs. So we began a very concerted effort three years ago that we call SuccessNC. … There are about 13 different systemwide initiatives that are tied to student success, (and the) focus on developmental education has been sort of ground zero . . . . From what we saw looking at data, it was kind of the Bermuda Triangle of student success.
Ralls: Do you know why we call it developmental instead of remediation?
Ralls: Our average age is 27, so we have a lot of students who are 45, laid off from a textile company and graduated from high school years ago. They often times need some refresher before they go into a college level course. That’s the reason why it’s referred to as developmental. If we were just dealing with students that were just out of high school, then it would just be remediation.