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Colorado Pilot Aims to Prepare 8th Graders for College-Level Math

If it's a good idea to make sure high school students are on track to be college-ready, why not find out even earlier with middle school students?

In Colorado, the Early Remediation Project is helping struggling math students starting in 8th grade to catch up and prove they are ready to enroll in college-level courses.

Colorado GEAR UP, a federally-funded program that focuses on college-readiness for disadvantaged students, developed a math course in 2011 in partnership with Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo.

Students work with an online program that allows them to progress at their own pace through several math sequences. A teacher is on hand to answer questions and provide support. When they finish, the students are given a transcript from the university that documents their completion of the remedial course and demonstrates they are ready for credit-bearing classes when they arrive on campus.

Other states and local districts are offering transition programs aimed at the senior year in high school, but Scott Mendelsberg, the executive director of Colorado GEAR UP, says the earlier the better to intervene. He noticed that many of the students from his program didn't do well on college-placement tests and it was linked, in part, to the questions going back to math they'd learned in middle school.

Nearly 60 percent of GEAR UP students were not considered college-ready in math. Only 10 percent of students needing remediation earn a bachelor's degree in four years or less.

"Remediation is a black hole. There is not return on the investment," said Mendelsburg. "If we can prove they can get through math, that's the biggest gatekeeper."

In aligning the work of the intervention project with the university, the math course was renamed to be the same as the remedial courses (030 or 060) at Adams State. Mendlesberg said once students knew they could fulfill a college requirement through the course, they were motivated.

"It provides kids with hope and a more transparent pathway," he said. The project also includes field trips, practice tests for the ACT and SAT, and college campus visits, which has students looking at the big-picture of their future.

The project is now reaching 1,350 students enrolled at eight middle schools and 13 high schools in the pilot. If students don't finish the course in 8th grade, they can pick up again where they left off in 9th grade or even into their sophomore year.

Trisha Ramsey, a teacher at Adams City Middle School, helps recruit students for the early remediation course and oversees the program. Students take a diagnostic test going into the class to see how many topics they have mastered and select lessons to work on at their own pace. It's not merely multiple-choice questions. The problems require students to do calculations, sometimes put answers into points on a graph, and keep a record of their work in a notebook.Students find out immediately if their answers are right or wrong.  

Rather than whole group lessons, Ramsey says she is "popcorning" helping students around her two classes with 25 students each, as they raise their hands to ask questions.

Ramsey said the structure encourages them to buckle down because if they get the first few problems in a sequence right, then they will not have to complete as many in total in that section.

"What motivates kids from at-risk backgrounds is a need for autonomy. That's what keeps them going," she said.  Students track the number of minutes they work and fill out time sheets. Together, with the teacher, they review the data and calculate their daily mastery. Once students complete the course, they are eligible to take dual-enrollment math courses by the end of their sophomore year to earn college credit.

While the initial GEAR UP remediation program focused on math, the plan is to expand the early intervention project to English courses this year. Researchers are now doing an evaluation of the effects of the intervention on student success in high school and beyond, according to GEAR UP officials.

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