Monday, December 20, 2010

If at First You Don’t Succeed...

This story about course repeaters in California struck a chord with me. We’re facing a similar question at my own campus.

Apparently, California is considering amending its policies on allowing students to repeat courses as many times as they want. It’s looking at a cap. The idea is that seats in classes are not infinite, and once someone has whiffed several times, someone else should have a shot.

Okay, but to me, that leaves out the most interesting and compelling reason. On my own campus, as well as nationally, we’ve found that the pass rates on second attempts are well below the pass rates on first attempts. The pass rates on third attempts are lower still. There comes a point at which there’s a compelling argument to be made that by allowing students to register for a course yet again, we’re just taking their (and the taxpayers’) money.

Pass rates are largely counterintuitive. The ‘easier’ the course content, the lower the pass rate. Basic arithmetic has a much lower pass rate than does calculus, even though calculus is ‘harder.’ Similarly, third-time course takers have much lower pass rates than first-time course takers, even though the third-timers should have the advantage of previous exposure to the material.

Of course, that observation may be flawed in that most people taking developmental math for the first time aren’t really first-timers. They’ve had it before, in high school, and it didn’t ‘take.’ Part of the great tragedy of remediation is that we’re taking students who have (generally) had thirteen years of exposure to the K-12 system, where standard methods didn’t work for them, and we’re giving them a fourteenth year of standard methods. The fact that it often fails really shouldn’t be so surprising.

But that strikes me as an argument for trying different teaching methods in developmental math, rather than giving up on it altogether. To give up would be to write off anybody who went to a crappy high school. Second chances are worth something, and enough students actually do something positive with the second chance that throwing it away would feel like a crime.

Of course, there are second chances, and then there are fifth chances. There comes a point...

Community college faculty and administrators, as a group, tend to believe in open access. So even when there’s a good argument for restrictions, it cuts against the cultural grain.

Wise and worldly readers, has your campus found an elegant way to deal with the balance between access and, well, futility?