A growing percentage of high school graduates in West Virginia who attend the state’s public colleges need to take remedial classes to be ready for entry-level college classes. That’s according to a new report presented Thursday to the board that oversees West Virginia’s two-year colleges.
About 31 percent of college-going students who graduated in the spring of 2016 had test scores low enough that required them to enroll in a remedial class when they went to college, the report showed. That rate is double in a handful of the state’s most southern counties.
“What you’re seeing is, socioeconomic conditions that students face are a strong predictor of college success,” said Chris Treadway, the interim director of research and analysis who completed the report.
He was referring to a series of maps that show low-income areas largely coincide with counties that have graduate students needing remedial classes.
The report doesn’t take into account students who went to school out of the state, nor students who went to the state’s private colleges.
Two-thirds of college-going students in some Southern West Virginia counties needed remedial classes, the report shows. In eight counties, more than half of the college-going students needed remedial classes. Those counties were Calhoun, Fayette, Gilmer, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wayne.
College-going students from North Central West Virginia and each of the panhandles had the lowest need for remedial classes. In only one county, Monongalia, were there fewer than 10 percent of college-going students needing such classes.
The report was presented Thursday morning at a meeting of the Council for Community and Technical College Education. It includes students who graduated in the spring of 2016 and went on to study at one of the state’s public colleges within a year. It includes students who went to public and private high schools, and breaks down the need for remedial education by county and most individual schools.
“There’s been a real disconnect,” said Bob Brown, chairman of the council. “For a lot of years, public education has thought, ‘We know exactly what we need to get the kids prepared for to get them into college.’ But that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s just a lack of communication right now. We live in two separate worlds, and we need to figure out how to live in one world.”
Education quality coming into spotlight
State schools Superintendent Steve Paine said at a meeting earlier this week that he expects West Virginia’s 89.4 percent four-year public high school graduation rate for last school year to keep the state among the highest in the nation, by that measure.
“But we need to focus on quality instruction,” Paine said. “Even though we’re graduating a lot of kids, I have concerns about the quality of what we’re doing.”
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, questioned Paine during a legislative interim meeting Monday on whether credit-recovery programs provided students with enough instruction to make sure they learn core material. Those programs, which Paine said are used in most school systems across the state, often allow students to take a shortened, online program to make up for classes they’ve failed.
“We’ve got to stop making it easy to get a high school education requirement,” said Delegate George Ambler, R-Greenbrier. “There’s a lot of reasons why graduation statistics went up, and I’d venture to say it wasn’t because of the quality of education that kids were getting, it was the programs that were offered.
“Education should have a meaning to it. That high school diploma should not be cheapened, and it seems to me . . . we’re cheapening it.”
In Kanawha County, where 759 students from the class of 2016 went on to study at a public college in West Virginia, about 35 percent enrolled in some sort of remedial class. About 28 percent enrolled in remedial math, and almost 18 percent enrolled in remedial English.
Kanawha County Schools spokeswoman Briana Warner said she hadn’t seen this data Thursday and was reluctant to answer questions. In an emailed statement, she said the county school system is dedicated to making sure students are college- and career-ready.
“Specific to students who may need a bit of additional academic help, we’re proud of the individual programs that each high school has developed to support those students,” Warner wrote. As one such example of a program, she pointed to “Warrior Time” at Riverside High, where students get one period a day to make up class work or focus on areas of need.
Students at Riverside had the highest rate of needing remedial classes of any public high school in the county. Nearly 51 percent of Riverside’s college-going students needed some sort of remedial classes, with 45 percent needing remedial math and 23 percent needing remedial English.
Valery Harper, the former principal of Riverside who recently was hired to lead the county’s virtual-schools program, said in an emailed statement after reading the report that she worked continuously while at Riverside to improve the school’s performance and believes the school is in “good hands” with the new principal, Jane Kennedy.
Harper did not specify what changes should be made, and Kennedy did not return a request for comment.
Graduates of South Charleston High had the second-highest rate in the county for needing remedial classes. The principal of that school, Michael Arbogast, said test scores alone shouldn’t be used to determine if a student should take remedial education. He suggested other facts, like a student’s GPA and recommendations from teachers, should count toward the determination.
“I’m just telling you, some kids have to work harder than others,” Arbogast said. “I have kids here who’ve been inducted into our honors program that maybe aren’t the highest-achieving academic kids but have busted their tails and worked their rear ends off to get in there. They get in there and they maintain a high grade point average. But when it comes down to the ACT, they don’t score real well.”
College-going students of George Washington High School had the lowest rate of needing remedial classes, with a nearly 24 percent rate. The principal of that school did not return a request for comment.
Changing attitudes to remedial classes
A statewide policy dictates which students are eligible to enter college math, English and reading courses and which students need remedial education. Students can qualify for entry-level college courses only through standardized test scores, like the ACT and SAT.
Students needs to take remedial math if they score below 19 on the math section of the ACT or below 500 on the math section of the SAT. A student who scores below 18 on the English section of the ACT or below 480 on the English section of the SAT needs to take a remedial course in English.
The West Virginia Department of Education recently selected the SAT as the new statewide assessment for high school juniors.
The ACT, which historically has been the most common college entrance exam students in the Mountain State take, has higher standards for what it sees as a student ready for college math. Under that standard, a student should earn a 22 in its math section.
Only 40 percent of students included in the study met the ACT’s benchmark. About 46 percent of students going to a four-year college did so, compared to only 12 percent who go to a two-year school.
In previous years, students taking remedial classes were enrolled in a class without credit, meaning that, although they had to complete class work and exams, how they performed in the class didn’t count to their overall credits to earn a degree. As a result, many students didn’t finish the remedial course.
The state’s public colleges have largely redesigned this system in the past four years, opting to call it developmental education, instead of remedial classes. Corley Dennison, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said community colleges pushed in 2013 for a change, to make sure every student needing remedial classes got that remediation in a credit-bearing course.
In practice, this means professors squeeze remedial education into an entry-level course.
“The downside is, if you’re spending time on developmental courses, you’re not spending the time you could be on regular higher education courses,” Brown said.
All of West Virginia’s public two-year colleges have implemented the co-requisite model, Dennison said, save for a handful of cases where students need extreme remediation. About 55 percent of all community college students need some sort of developmental education, the report shows.
In four-year colleges, the change hasn’t been as swift. The HEPC, which oversees four-year schools, set a goal to get 80 percent of all students needing remedial education into a co-requisite class by fall 2018. Dennison said the four-year colleges are on track to meet that goal next year, but he didn’t know Thursday afternoon exactly how close they are.
“In the long-run, the colleges actually spend less time, because they had so many students that were dropping out of the developmental course because they were getting behind or they weren’t going to pass it,” Dennison said. “Then they had to repeat the course. The success numbers with this program are so much higher, because they’re having fewer students repeating the course.”