Colleges are opening their doors a little wider, no longer requiring new students to have certain skill levels in reading, writing and math.
Starting in January, students who have graduated from a Florida high school in recent years can skip non-credit remedial classes, even if tests show they may not be ready to perform at a college level.
The impact could be huge. About 62 percent of high school graduates entering Broward College and 68 percent entering Palm Beach State College were forced to take non-credit remedial classes, due to poor scores on a placement test.
The state this year mandated the move to keep students from getting stuck in non-credit classes. But some worry it could also cause students to enroll in classes they have little chance of passing.
"It's like saying to a beginning pilot, 'Why don't you fly in a big jetliner. It will get you there faster than a light aircraft," said Ginger Pedersen, dean for curriculum and educational technology at Palm Beach State. "You have to learn the basic fundamental skills first."
Remedial classes have been offered at community colleges since at least the 1970s and have been mandated by state law since 1984. Math is the most common area of weakness.
On Tuesday, Broward College's Board of Trustees revised its admissions policies so that remedial classes are encouraged, but not required. Other colleges are also adjusting their policies.
While remedial classes will still be offered, traditional full-semester ones are being phased out. They are being replaced with short-term boot camps and refresher courses, online classes and ones that combine college-level and remedial work.
Students who struggle in math are now able to take intermediate algebra classes for elective credit that will help prepare them for ones that meet colleges' math requirements.
State legislators hope the law will enable students to get out of college faster by focusing on classes that count toward their degree, while also cutting costs of remedial programs.
Only about a quarter of state college students in South Florida graduated within three years of starting. Students who get stuck in the remedial classes often exhaust much of their financial aid before dropping out, experts say.
"It is no longer a one-size-fits-all system," said Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Division of Florida Colleges. "Our goal is to get people successfully out of developmental-ed courses and receiving a degree and moving on to a university or moving on to a job as soon as possible.''
The law applies to any student who enrolled in a Florida public high school during the 2003-04 school year or later and has a standard diploma. Active U.S. military members are also free to enroll in college-level classes without a placement test, regardless of where they got their high school diploma.
Colleges say the law will be a welcome relief for students who believe they've been improperly placed in remedial classes, often referred to as "zero-level classes."
A problem with the old model was that placement relied entirely on test scores, officials say. That offered little flexibility for good students who were poor standardized test takers, as well as those who were just a few points away from being considered proficient.
"Those that are on the cusp we can encourage to do a refresher course and provide them some additional support in a college-level class, and they're likely to be fine," said Joanne Bashford, assistant vice president for developmental education at Broward College.
But officials worry it could be going too far for the most struggling students.
Marina Perminova, 35, of Hollywood, is enrolled in an intermediate math course that earns her elective credit but doesn't satisfy the school's math requirements. Perminova, a native of Russia who has taken a remedial English class, doesn't believe students should be able to easily opt out of the classes.
"That's why placement tests exist," she said. "If you let students decide, no one will want to take the classes."
College officials say they believe remedial classes in math will be an easier sell than those in English and reading.
"No one fools themselves about math. Either you can work the problems or you can't," Pedersen said. "They can all read and write, but their comprehension may not be at level where they're able to read a college textbook."
Colleges say they're eager to see how this law affects retention and graduation rates.
They said about half to two-thirds of students passed the remedial courses. And studies have shown those who successfully complete the classes are just as likely to earn a college degree as those who didn't take them.
"But for those who don't pass, it makes their college journey much more arduous," Bashford said. "The more time it takes, the more likely that life is going to get in the way. They may get a job or get married and leave. We're hoping this will speed up student progression."
Orlando Sentinel reporter Denise Ordway contributed to this report.
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