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Thirty percent of recent graduates of Montana high schools entering the state’s public colleges or universities last fall had to take at least one developmental education class.

When students don’t score high enough on placement math or writing tests, they must take a developmental class — sometimes called a remedial class — to bring them up to college-level work.

If that number is alarming, the good news is that the state’s remediation rate last fall was down from nearly 37 percent in the fall of 2005.

At least part of that progress can be attributed to improvements in student writing, said Tyler Trevor, associate commissioner of higher education.

About 8,000 public high school students take a writing test each year. If their skills aren’t up to college level, high schools work with them on areas of weakness, Trevor said.

The percentage of students needing remedial math courses also declined some, but more students still need pre-college math classes than writing courses.

About 10 percent of entering freshmen needed a remedial writing class, while more than 26 percent required a math class. Some students needed both.

Students usually have trouble with math when they haven’t had a math class recently or don’t use math on a regular basis.

“It’s not like riding your bike,” said Chairsty Stewart, who teaches developmental math at Montana State University Billings.

Some students may not have been ready to learn math in high school or have had a bad experience with the subject.

The Montana Board of Regents long has been interested in increasing students’ readiness for college for several reasons, Trevor said.

Two- and four-year degrees increasingly are necessary to get jobs.

Math and writing are critical to getting those degrees, as well as essential to a well-rounded education.

Taking remedial classes costs both students and taxpayers money because students are studying the same material twice. Students have to pay for developmental education classes that they take in college, but those credits don’t count toward a degree.

One major project under way is Big Sky Pathways, said John Cech, deputy commissioner for two-year education. Cech’s office oversees developmental education at state colleges and universities.

The Montana University System is working with the Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to create a way for high school students to find out exactly what high school and college classes they will need to prepare them for specific careers. Knowing that early on may encourage more students to take four years of high school math, for example, cutting the need for a remedial math class in college.

Cech also is applying for a federal grant to improve the way that developmental classes are taught so students can more quickly move on to college-level classes.

With a 30 percent remediation rate, Montana fares a little better than the country as a whole. About 34 percent of American students going on to their state’s higher education campuses take remedial courses.

Remediation rates range widely from campus to campus in Montana.

Last fall, at the University of Montana main campus, only 12 percent of recent Montana high school graduates needed a pre-college class. Of the four-year campuses, MSU Billings and UM Western at Dillon had the highest rates at 55 percent.

Remediation rates generally are higher for students entering two-year schools than four year colleges and universities, Trevor said.

In fall 2010, 24 percent of recent Montana high school grads entering four-year state schools took at least one remedial class, and 57 percent of students entering two-year schools, including colleges of technology.

That’s because Montana colleges of technology have an open admissions policy, and some students may not be prepared for college, Trevor said.

Private schools, too, have students who enroll and are unable to do college work the first year.

Rocky Mountain College students who don’t score high enough on placement tests take remedial classes in writing and math, said Jane Van Dyke, director of Services for Academic Success, who taught one of two sections of basic composition last fall. The two sections had a total 48 students.

Most of her students do well and go on to regular college classes, she said. She’s flunked a few students — mostly because they didn’t come to class — but not many.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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