jump start

A new program to catch students up for college, without remediation

PHOTO: Tim Carroll
Kellie Zolnikov (left) and Kaitling Carrasco (right) discuss a math problem in peer study session. Zolnikov helps manage Metro State's SAI program.

Wanda Holopainen was struggling with a math problem involving the probability of winning a cash prize in a charity ball raffle. Holopainen, who attends Metropolitan State University of Denver, got distracted in lecture and missed the explanation, which proved important with the last test of the semester looming.

“I learned all this in high school,” she said. “But I don’t remember it.”

Holopainen, who is originally from Finland and sometimes faces language barriers in class, scored low enough on the ACT math section that, after being admitted to Metro, she would ordinarily be required to take a remedial math course at a community college to catch up. That could take her as many as three semesters, for which she would receive no credits towards a college degree.

And since Holopainen also struggled on the reading and writing portions, it could take even longer before she was out of community college and working towards a four-year degree.

But now she and other students like her, who teeter on the edge of needing remediation, have the opportunity to skip that drawn out process and jump right into college-level class through an approach known as supplemental academic instruction (SAI).

The program, which aims to get students up to speed within a traditional university like Metro State, is known as supplemental academic instruction. Alongside their normal classes, students receive extra support ranging from tutoring and peer study sessions to extra class time where students can receive targeted one-on-one help.

The goal? Reduce the number of students who may never make it back from a remedial course into a college-level course or receive a degree.

Hard work to reduce dropouts

In 2011, nearly 10,000 Colorado students faced the prospect of having to take remedial courses in order to enroll in a college course. That’s 40 percent of last year’s freshman class of Colorado students at the state’s universities.

And the graduation rates for those students are low; only one in ten students enrolled in remedial courses in Colorado graduate from community colleges within three years. One in five Colorado students taking remedial courses graduate from a four-year college.

At Metro State, many incoming students have graduated from low-performing high schools or are returning to college after years in the workforce. Last year, the state reported that the school had one of the highest rates of students who were required to complete remedial classes before they could enroll, and it also posted some of the state’s lowest graduation rates.

Those extra challenges prompted faculty members to explore the idea of finding a way to provide support at the school itself, instead of sending students to a community college after they had already been admitted.

“They’d get admitted and then we told them, ‘you can’t really take our classes,’” said Jessica Parker, a professor in Metro State’s English department. “These are our students and we really wanted to keep them here.”

So her department, along with the math department, applied for special permission from the state to enroll students in first year college courses who would ordinarily, by state statute, have been bound for remedial courses. Both departments developed their own cutoffs and methods for assessing students’ abilities.

In the English department, that includes ACT scores, an additional test and an essay. About ten percent of students place out of remediation based on the quality of their essay and many of those, Parker says, do just as well as their peers who scored higher on the ACT. Those students who still exhibit a need for extra support enroll in one of two programs: an extended version of the introductory writing class spread over two semesters or the regular course with an additional writing lab.

In either case, Parker keeps a close eye on their performance, so she or their instructor can intervene if their performance drops.

“It’s hard work with support,” said Parker.

Students who are enrolled in the typical introductory class aren’t separated out in a designated section of the course but mingle with their peers. The goal is to show that, given the opportunity, those students succeed as well.

“Traditional remediation is based on the idea that you’re going back to something that you failed to learn initially,” said Parker. Instead, the program is about saying, “we know you can do this and we’ll give you the support you need.”

So far, her hopes have panned out. The English department, which served about 110 students total this year, has seen a substantial decrease in the number of low grades and incompletes in the first year course. And the pass rate for the SAI program is 88 percent, considerably higher than the general course.

In math, the pass rate for students in the SAI program was seven points higher than those who did not receive support.

A mental shift for colleges

At the moment, Metro State is the only institution in the state running a supplemental support program to prevent remediation, although three others submitted applications that are still awaiting approval. State officials hope to see even more schools take it on, after a 2012 law loosened the requirements for how students should be remediated and opened the door for programs like Metro State’s.

But other states have already adopted the approach. In Connecticut, SAI (which is also known as corequisite remediation) is mandatory for students needing more than one semester of remediation.

“We’ve known for a long time that students who are placed into remediation don’t do as well,” said Bruce Vandal, the vice president for Complete College America, which — as its title suggests — works on strategies to increase college retention and graduation rates. In some cases, that’s been used as way to see if students are ready for college.

“The thinking is [that] we give these students a chance in remediation and if they don’t make it, the line of thinking that they weren’t ready after all comes into play,” said Vandal.

Rather than attributing students’ failures to the fact that they weren’t ready in the first place, many institutions are beginning to find ways, including SAI, to support the students they admit. As part of the shift, Vandal said, institutions are going to need to find a way to eliminate so-called “attrition points” where large numbers of students drop out — including remedial courses.

“Higher education has always been viewed as a privilege, not a right,” Vandal said. “But with research saying to have any way of getting into the middle class, you need a college education, [college] can’t be exclusive.”

Part of making the shift has been using tests like the ACT how state officials say they’re intended: to test students’ skills, not to shut them out.

“The way it’s always been is you either pass that test or you fail,” said Lieutenant Governor Joe Garcia, who has supported a series of education initiatives targeted at improving the state’s graduation rates at both the K-12 and college level. “But maybe you forget that one thing about how to divide fractions and we can remind you of it and you’ve got it.”

But it hasn’t been an easy change for everyone, including the state’s community colleges.

“The community colleges resisted [SAI] at first because [remediation] is a huge revenue source,” said Garcia. But, he says, the shift could also save the state some of the millions of dollars it pays out for students taking remedial courses.

And community colleges have begun to adapt, too.

“Even there, they’re going to try and do [remediation] in less time,” said Garcia. ”

Instead of three semesters of remedial math, they’re going to try and do it in one or two semesters.”

“We feed ideas off of each other”

Some of the shift in thinking is apparent in Holopainen’s approach to filling in the gap created by her wandering attention in class. Rather than ignoring it or assuming she was simply incapable of learning it, she brought it to her peer study group, a close knit group of girls who mix gentle teasing and concentrated effort during their biweekly meetings.

“You weren’t paying attention,” nagged Kaitlin Carrasco when Holopainen raised her confusion. But Carrasco and the others walked Holopainen through the problem. And then Carrasco raised her own confusions and the process repeated itself.

“We feed ideas off of each other,” said Carrasco. “Someone has one part and someone has another.”

And when that fails, they turn to their peer study instructor, whose role is to drift around the classroom asking and answering student questions.

Carrasco’s instructor, Kellie Zolnikov, who also helps manage the math department’s program, said that having multiple perspectives, including several from their own peers, can help students who struggle to relate to their professors. And it gives students a toolbox, rather than just a tool.

“Here’s another way to do it in case your brain needs it” is Zolnikov’s description of her approach.

Although this sounds like it should be happening in most classes, Carrasco says it’s not. In fact, she says math is the only class where that sort of conversation happens.

And it’s made a difference in her learning and her attitude toward the class.

“I hated math in high school,” said Carrasco. “But now that I get it, math is still kind of horrible, but I can handle it.” She’s signed up to take math with Zolnikov in the fall and is considering going into business management.

According to Parker, that’s a sign the program is working. It takes the shame out of needing help.

“One teacher says it’s a privilege, not a punishment,” she said. And according to student surveys, many of the program’s participants agree.

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.


22,000 New Yorkers will get new college scholarship from the state after 94,000 applied

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

After a long wait, the official tally of New York’s new free-college recipients is here.

Nearly 22,000 New York state students qualified for the first round of the state’s new “Excelsior Scholarship,” which provides free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, state officials announced Sunday. Another 23,000 students who applied for the scholarship will receive free tuition through existing state and federal financial aid, which they may not have sought out were it not for the Excelsior application process.

The numbers are good news for students who will receive more tuition assistance. However, the number of recipients is a fraction of the approximately 94,000 students who applied, highlighting a persistent criticism that the scholarship’s reach may not live up to its hype.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago – it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential.”

With the Excelsior Scholarship, New York became the first state in the country to cover tuition costs at both two and four-year institutions, putting it at the center of a national conversation about college affordability. The rollout had all the trappings of a major announcement: Cuomo unveiled the program standing next to free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders and signed it sitting next to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

But behind the hype, the state expected many applicants would not qualify because scholarship recipients are required to graduate in four years, with little wiggle room to fall behind, and must maintain decent grades. Students are also required to live and work in New York state after graduation for the same number of years they received the award.

The scholarship has also been criticized for catering mainly to middle-class families. Because it is a last-dollar program, students must first use existing state or federal aid, then Excelsior will make up any additional gaps in tuition funding. Many low-income students already qualify for free tuition through state and federal aid, leaving higher-income students mostly likely to benefit from the state program. (This year, students whose families make less than $100,000 per year can qualify and that number will increase to $125,000 by 2019.)

The state is already hailing the program as a success, saying that with the addition of the scholarship, 53 percent of full-time CUNY and SUNY students — or about 210,000 New Yorkers — can now attend college tuition-free. There are also more than 6,000 applications pending final approval, which means the total number of applicants is likely to rise.

The new scholarship drew wide interest from families and students. The state extended the application deadline because of a surge in applicants, which jumped from 75,000 in midsummer to 94,000 by the final deadline.

Students who did not receive the scholarship will see a $200 tuition hike this year, bringing the total cost to $6,670 per year for in-state students.