A stubborn and costly problem for first-year students at Indiana colleges stems from a simple but frustrating fact: About 28 percent of them simply aren’t fully prepared to do college work, even if they got good grades in high school.
To solve that problem, those students are shuttled into remedial courses that they pay for, but don’t result in college credit when they pass them. Many of those students fall behind, and the risk grows that they will drop out of college, leaving them with student loans they will still have to pay off.
But in 2013, Indiana legislators passed a bill with a potentially game-changing idea in mind: require high schools to figure out which students aren’t on track for college level work and get them the extra help they need while they’re still in high school.
“We have the tools to identify students who need remediation and the ability to address the need for remediation in high school,” bill author Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said. “It’s just unacceptable to tell those students they are ready for colleges and careers when in reality, they’re not.”
The bill also designed to reduce graduation waivers, which have come under scrutiny from the state. The waivers allow students to graduate even if they’ve failed one of the state tests so long as they meet other criteria. Earlier remediation should help students pass their end-of-course assessments and graduate without the need for waivers, proponents of the idea believe.
This school year, high schools will begin using a test called Accuplacer — used by colleges to determine if students need remediation — to identify students who appear to need that extra help. It’s been a challenge.
The logistics of going through student data and figuring out exactly who had to take the test has been the hardest part for Hendricks County’s Plainfield schools. The district began giving the test last spring, assistant superintendent Mary Giesting said. School districts are supposed to identify students who need to take Accuplacer based on their scores from Indiana’s end-of-course exams and national college placement and merit tests, like the PSAT, SAT and ACT. Not all of this data is easily accessible in one place, Giesting said, so compiling it was cumbersome.
“The problem is not as simple as some master spreadsheet that has all that information on it,” Brent Schwanekamp, vice principal at Plainfield High School, said. “And even if it was, you’re going line by line with 400 kids. That’s a really daunting task.”
A new strategy
The state has two main goals with the new process: Do a better job identifying students who need help before they graduate, and help them more effectively in high school so they can start college taking classes that count toward their degrees, said Jason Bearce, Indiana’s associate commissioner on higher education.
“We heard these stories about students arriving on campus and that’s the first time they find out they’re not college-ready,” Bearce said. “[This] is very concerning for the individual, but it also represents a pretty significant missed opportunity. I think that’s where this legislation came into play.”
The state chose the Accuplacer test to determine if students are meet the state’s expectations for what they should know in math and English. The test can pick out specific places where students need more help, and it is currently being used at Ivy Tech Community College, which cuts down on tests students would need to take if they enroll there later.
Indiana schools piloted the test in the 2013-14 school year for any school that wanted to give it, said Michele Walker, director of assessment for the Indiana Department of Education. This year, the testing begins in late January.
Once a district has identified the students who need extra help, it has a few options for how to bring them back up to speed. Walker said the choice is up to the schools, not the state.
“How schools work with students is local — they know them best,” Walker said. “We want to leave that to a local decision because they may have particular programs in their communities, do something after school or weave it into their curriculum.”
At Plainfield, a student can take a course specifically designed to boost skills in Algebra 1 or sophomore English, the two high school courses that lead to end-of-course exams they must pass to graduate. The course helps them focus on skills they have struggled with in the past. These classes are taught by new and veteran teachers alike and are purposefully kept small with less than 20 students. Teachers work with the students to design a plan for what needs to be improved, and then they have a semester to build up those skills.
Plainfield students can also take additional classes alongside their main Algebra 1 or sophomore English classes that help reinforce the ideas from that week’s lessons and give the students a chance for extra help as they go.
But this method isn’t new for Plainfield, Giesting said. They’ve always had this support in place for students, it’s the extra data analysis that’s new.
Plainfield High School is almost 88-percent white and had a combined math and English ECA passing rate of about 90 percent last year, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education’s website. Giesting said that while the district puts a lot of work into its remediation programs, she knows schools with more struggling students will face a tougher road to meeting the state’s requirements.
“It’s a thorn in our side just from a detail standpoint and practical standpoint,” Giesting said. “But for some school corporations, this is a burden.”
Almost one-third of incoming freshmen in the class of 2012 had to take remedial courses in college, costing Hoosiers about $78 million, according to a 2012 Commission on Higher Education report about college readiness.
In Marion County, 1,510 students needed to brush up basic skills in college, about 34 percent of graduates. Most of those student needed help in math, which was also true statewide. State officials hope this new process will cause those numbers to start dropping.
A high school junior who either scores less than 46 on the PSAT or fails the English or math ECA twice must take Accuplacer, under the rules. However, if a student has a high enough ACT or SAT score, they can avoid it. Some students might only need to take the English version of Accuplacer, some might need math, and others, both, Walker said.
While schools will test students during junior year and then are expected to ramp up extra help, they are not required to re-test students before they graduate. So students could still enter college needing extra help. Ivy Tech has set up a type of course that offers remediation at the same time as regular instruction, Clere said, so students aren’t wasting time paying for extra classes they can’t use. Most Indiana students needing remediation take their classes at Ivy Tech or Vincennes University.
“Think about finishing your first semester at Ivy Tech and realizing that you’ve accomplished nothing in terms of completing your degree,” Clere said. “That can be very discouraging and it also has implications for financial aid if you’re burning up your financial aid eligibility on remediation.”
Going forward, Clere’s bill makes students who use a waiver to graduate because they could not pass state tests ineligible for some kinds of financial aid, including scholarships from the state’s 21st Century Scholars program, Bearce said. Now to even qualify for the program’s scholarships, Bearce said students must graduate with a Core 40 diploma, which has more difficult course requirements than the state’s general diploma.
“If you graduate with a waiver, you’re more likely to need remediation,” Bearce said. “We don’t want students to graduate with a false sense of readiness that has the unfortunate consequence of a dashed dream when you leave and think you’re ready and find out you aren’t.”
KaNeasha Koebcke, director of guidance in Plainfield, said it’s also hard to get the students to take the test seriously.
“It’s hard to explain to kids what it’s about and why they have to take it,” Koebcke said. “It’s hard to explain to parents what this test is. Does it prevent them from graduating? No. What does it do for my child?”
It will be a few years to find out the effects of this new approach, Bearce said. But so far, school districts have struggled to organize so much student test data to meet the law’s requirements.
“This is an example of the legislature in the room saying we need better evidence that our students are college- and career-ready, so they created this statute, which standing alone sounds really good,” Giesting said. “But I think what we all need to understand is that if we don’t walk in tandem and if different people make different rules, it just adds a lot of extra energy and resources being used not to educate, but to test.”