Too Unschooled for School

Jesse Kuhn/

When Priscila De Los Santos graduated from high school in January, she took less than a week off before starting classes at City University of New York's Borough of Manhattan Community College. She felt confident in her ability to do well. She had finished high school a semester early, earning solid scores on the performance-based assessment tasks that her school, Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy in the Bronx, used in place of several Regents tests.

Before she could register for classes, though, she found that she had failed CUNY's entrance assessments. She would have to take developmental reading and writing for at least her first semester, and later, she would have to take developmental math.

"It was frustrating," the 18-year-old Bronx native recalls. "I was very disappointed."

De Los Santos became one of the 1.7 million American students who arrive on college campuses each year only to find that their schools have deemed them unprepared to be there, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Sixty percent of U.S. community college students and 20 percent of four-year-college students will take at least one developmental, or remedial, class. And more than 75 percent of remedial community-college students will not earn a degree, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lowering these high rates, researchers and educators say, will require understanding why students end up in such classes, improving how they are prepared for college, and changing how they are treated once they arrive.

"The bottom line is, even though the whole remedial enterprise was certainly started with good intentions and there's been a huge amount of experimentation, we're saying you've got to really question the fundamental model," says Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College who studies community-college outcomes with a particular focus on low-income students. "Because, at the end of the day, it's not working."

Graduation Rates on the Rise

One explanation for increased enrollment in remediation is the rising high-school graduation rate, which has now reached 75 percent nationally, a 40-year high, according to Education Week. In New York City, the rate jumped 18 percentage points between 2005 and 2012, when 65 percent of all students who had entered high school four years earlier earned a degree.

Many of these new graduates enroll in community colleges, which generally admit anyone with a high school diploma. Yet many arrive academically unprepared. In 2012, 79 percent of New York City public high-school graduates who enrolled in a CUNY community college tested into at least one remedial class.

Entrance assessments are another reason that students land in developmental classes. These tests sometimes label students as needing remediation when they don't; two studies published by the Community College Research Center in 2012 found that up to a third of students in developmental courses could have immediately taken regular courses and passed with at least a B.

"High school grades are a much better predictor of success" overall, Jenkins says.

Once students enter developmental courses, they can face additional problems. Classes typically meet only two or three times a week for a few hours, which might not be enough time to strengthen students' skills. And students of color, low-income students, English language-learners, and students in the first generation in their families to attend college—all of whom enter remediation at rates higher than the general population—may have additional stressors, such as working long hours to support their families while attending school, says Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania who studies low-income students of color.

Ramon Garcia, a math teacher in BMCC's CUNY Start intensive remediation program, says, "I've had individuals who were in homeless shelters, I've had individuals who were recently released from prison, I've had individuals who were in halfway houses, I've had individuals who were receiving some type of assistance, whether for substance abuse or depression."

When Charles Hirsch became an English professor at New York City College of Technology a decade ago, he was surprised by his remedial learners' lack of preparedness. "They'd get up and walk around the classroom," he says. "They had no idea that studying has a process to it: You read, you study, you take notes, and you review—they never did that. They had no dictionary skills. They had such a cavalier attitude about having homework in; they might have it, they might not."

De Los Santos had similar frustrations with some of her BMCC classmates, who she says did not pay attention and interrupted class, as well as with her instructors.

"I used to even cry, because the professors, they were not helping me enough," she says.

At the end of her first semester, De Los Santos failed her ending assessments for her developmental courses. In doing so, she became part of another trend: Students in such courses struggle to pass them. In the CUNY system in 2012, according to its latest performance report, 50 percent of remedial writing students passed the exit exam, 43 percent passed remedial reading, and 38 percent passed remedial math.


Students who fail the courses must retake them until they pass. The classes do not count for graduation credits, though they usually cost as much as regular courses. Federal financial aid can be used for only 30 credits of remediation; students who do not pass by the cutoff find themselves with no funding and no way to go forward. Faced with mounting debt, many of these students end up dropping out.

"College Knowledge"

De Lo Santos, who was born in New York, raised in the Dominican Republic, and moved back to the city for the second half of high school, says she thought her high school's semester-long performance-based assessment tasks benefited her academic skills more than the Regents would have. But she still would have preferred more preparation for higher education.

"The last two years of high school, they should provide more orientation about college," she says. "In the last year, they should prepare you to take the placement tests."

Diana Lebeaux, the curriculum development manager at the Boys Club of New York, which offers test-preparation courses and tutoring, says she's seen students capable of mastering all of the skills tested, but years behind their more affluent peers and unable to learn enough before the test date.

"We're hoping to fill in the gaps, to even the playing field a little," she says. It's a playing field that can vary depending on students' high schools, their neighborhoods, their family lives. "If somebody lives in public housing and shares a room with several family members, there's not always a quiet place to work," she notes.

With an increasing number of incoming students being the first in their families to attend college, researchers also worry about a lack of "college knowledge"—familiarity with the unwritten rules of academia that "typically, an upper-middle-class family will explain to their kids in lots of ways," says Melinda Mechur Karp, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center.

"When I put on my syllabus that you should come to class prepared—well, what does that mean?" Karp says. "Does that mean 'I should bring a pencil'? Does that mean 'I've done the reading'? Does that mean 'I should have questions'? Students who aren't familiar with higher ed aren't going to know what I meant."

Karp says that semester-long "college 101" courses, combining college knowledge, study skills, and some academic skills, can help, pointing to the example of Bronx Community College, which just restructured its first-year seminar to allow students not just to learn skills but to practice them in a specific content area. Jenkins and Gasman also suggest making coursework more relevant to developmental students' lives, or creating activism projects, in which classes work together to identify, write about, and solve a problem in their community, as ways to engage students who may have had negative experiences with math or English.

Thinking About Thinking

After her first semester, De Los Santos's academic career took a turn for the better. She enrolled in the CUNY Start program, which pairs intensive developmental instruction in math and English—25 hours of class a week for full-time students, 12 for part-time—with weekly college advising sessions. All classes have a lead teacher and a support teacher. And tuition is only $75, with all other costs subsidized by CUNY's operating budget.

"I saved approximately $3,000 from my financial aid," De Los Santos says.

One of the tenets of the program's approach is helping students build metacognition—thinking about thinking. Guided by instructors' questions, students trace the steps of their thought processes and discuss how they arrived at answers. The goal is for students to become more independent learners.

"It's not just about getting them out of remediation," says Sherry Mason, an English instructor. "It's about helping them succeed in their college classes."

One day in September, Mason modeled for her class a context-clues vocabulary exercise with the word "redeem."

"'She forgot her mother's birthday but tried to redeem herself by sending flowers.' What would be the emotion for the first half of the sentence?" Mason asked.

"Straight face," one student suggested.

"Surprised," said another.

"What do you think of this ungrateful child who forgot her mother's birthday," Mason said, drawing an angry face with devil horns on the board, "but she sent her flowers—what a good kid," drawing a smiley face with a halo.

"I know when people get angry, then they'll say, 'I have to redeem myself,' but I don't have the words to say what that means," one woman said.

"You're playing basketball, you make a turnover, a really bad one, but then you make a really good play, and you redeem yourself," a man near her said.


Together, the class decided that "redeem" meant "to make up for your mistakes."

Abner Valenzuela, 35, says he sees his classmates using their new knowledge. One of their recent vocabulary words was "emulate," and a few days after the class moved on, another student told him that she was emulating his reading style.

"That word's going to stick with her, because she has attached a personal meaning to that," he says.

Briana Santana, who graduated in 2011 from Louis D. Brandeis High School, has already found success in the program. After passing CLIP, CUNY's program for English language learners, she took and passed Start's reading/writing class in spring 2013. Other students are excelling as well. The pass rate from remediation at the end of the program is about 69 percent, or about 25 percentage points greater than that of CUNY's general developmental education population.

"I have faith that, by the end of this semester, I will pass all of my remedial classes," De Los Santos says.

Andrea Gabbidon-Levene, the program's lead academic adviser, is wary of a criticism often lobbed at developmental classes: that college is not for everyone.

"College should be a choice," she says. "It shouldn't be that some people are given the tools to make it and others are left standing outside the building saying, 'I could've given it a go, but I never had the opportunity.'"

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