PEORIA — A troubling trend building in local education hit its worst mark yet when more than 500 incoming students at Illinois Central College last semester tested at the eighth grade level for math or lower.
It's a trend that has worsened in the past decade and caught the eye of a few deans at the community college. In a meeting at the East Peoria campus last semester, ICC President John Erwin delivered his monthly President's Report to the room of trustees. The report was fairly mundane until Erwin introduced a new statistic.
According to studies and data tracked at ICC over several years, 70 percent of incoming students at the junior college are not ready for college-level math courses, and 60 percent are not ready for college-level English courses.
Although this was a study conducted within ICC, Erwin said it's as much a statewide reflection as a central Illinois one.
"We're not unusual as a junior college," Erwin said. Spoon River College in Canton reported that 55 percent to 60 percent of the student body tests into developmental courses, or courses that don't count for college credit, in math and English.
And Tom Pilat — dean of math, science and engineering at ICC— said it's happening across the nation.
"It's happening everywhere," Pilat said. "It's not good for our students."
Erwin believes that local high schools and colleges need to work together to counter these developments.
"It may vary a percent or two year to year, but it's a pretty steady trend," Erwin said. "That means it's embedded pretty deep, so that means we need to be proactive in addressing it."
Math and English woes
Pilat began tracking the developmental math courses in his program in 2005, and the numbers have trended in the wrong direction since his initial inquiry.
The developmental courses include intermediate algebra, beginner's algebra at the high school level and pre-algebra normally taken in the eighth grade. Each section of those courses has about 25 students in a given semester.
According to Pilat's data, intermediate algebra had 17 sections of students in the fall of 2005, which has grown to 18 sections in 2013. Beginner's algebra grew from 20 sections in 2005 to 25 in 2013. Pre-algebra has almost doubled, from 11 sections in 2005 to 21 sections in 2013.
"Fractions and percentages are challenges," Pilat said. "Consumer math, like rounding up $80 or quartering off $60, these folks can't do that. That's difficult mental math."
These numbers come with a slight caveat: Pilat said about 20 percent to 25 percent of these students are older people going back to school, and many of them need a boost when re-engaging with math.
But the numbers don't improve when it involves high school seniors. More than 1,600 area high school seniors took the COMPASS test, a standardized test administered by ICC that places students into corresponding college courses, between December 2012 and August 2013. Of those students, 850 tested into math classes for college credit. The other 800 students were placed into developmental math courses that do not count for credit.
Page 2 of 3 - "Not all of those students eventually came to ICC," Pilat said. "But that tells you what the seniors are doing."
The advent of Peoria Promise, a program that offers two years of full tuition scholarships to Peoria School District 150 students to attend ICC, contributed an expected but smaller increase in the sections of developmental classes, according to Pilat. About one to two more sections have been added at the developmental level, Pilat said, but more sections at the transferrable course level also were added.
"We knew it would increase our enrollment, and we had to prepare for that," Pilat said. "As a community college, we are prepared to help students transition to college work. For many students there are no other opportunities available besides us."
Randy Greenwell, Spoon River College's vice president of instruction, said that students' performances in reading and English courses were equally troubling with a wider range of problems. The aptitude isn't present as students continue to test into the developmental courses, but diagnosing what caused them to score that poorly presents a more difficult obstacle.
"Math is very quantifiable," Greenwell said. "For reading and English, there's a huge range of problems, like concept development and dyslexia. Students don't know what they don't know."
Reversing the trend
ICC has taken aggressive steps in recent years to correct the shortcomings of incoming students.
The Math, Science and Engineering Department has hired three teachers in the last five years to teach developmental courses and "get the students up to speed," Pilat said. It's also received a grant from ICC to promote student awareness of the COMPASS test and to fund "Bridging the Gap" programs, which will run for a couple of weeks in the spring and summer in an effort to raise test scores so students can take college-credit courses.
Elsewhere, Erwin said the college has reached out to the 33 high schools that feed into ICC to align curriculum and expectations, especially District 150.
"(District 150 Superintendant) Dr. Grenita Lathan and I met, and we talked about partnering and one outcome of that was to introduce COMPASS testing at a much earlier point for high school students, like freshman year," Erwin said. "She and I have an agreement."
At Spoon River, students take a number of developmental courses in one semester, or what they call "clustering," Greenwell said.
"They'll take several levels of developmental courses in one semester," Greenwell said. This maneuver effectively shrinks the amount of time it takes for a student to get back on track for an associate degree while also preventing fatigue in math and English courses.
Local administrators and professors agreed that a universal desire among community educators in the area is revising high school curriculum to require four years of math. Currently, the state of Illinois requires high school students to complete only three years of math courses. The new Common Core Standards adopted by the state of Illinois recommend students take a fourth year of math and provide suggestions for senior year math courses like pre-calculus, statistics and business finance.
Page 3 of 3 - But Illinois Board of Education spokesman Matt Vanover said that it's up to each individual school district as to what curriculum it's going to use. With a fourth year of math not required, many senior year students decide to opt out of taking those courses.
"Absolutely, high schools are going to need to require four years of math," Greenwell said. "The problem is that so many other requirements are placed on high schools."
"If they're honest and look at the data, it took a while to get four years of English," Pilat said. "When you take a year off, the knowledge really dissipates. Even if they don't want to take the harder level math courses, any math would be better."
Erwin also has viewed this issue through the lens of career readiness and the business community. Local trades and businesses want to hire from local schools such as ICC and Spoon River, but not if students are unprepared for the work force.
"You don't want an electrician coming to your home that doesn't understand basic math or can't read a diagram. We've got to have people with those basic skills.
"The business community is also keenly interested in these outcomes. They really want to see a prepared work force. How can we attract businesses to this area if we don't have people prepared to be good workers? And good workers is defined in a number of ways. Basically, defined by the ability to read, write and calculate. It's a common interest in our broadened community."
Thomas Bruch can be reached at 686-3188 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasBruch.