About two years ago, Earl Hills, 37, was taking SK8 — now Math 20 — at Rogue Community College and learning to calculate eighth-grade equations. But Thursday morning in the college’s tutoring center, Hills was studying derivatives for a calculus lab assignment in Math 251.

“I had to take six or seven (remedial courses) to get to where I am right now,” Hills said.

Hills graduated from a local high school in 1997. When he took his placement test at RCC in 2012, he was assigned to the lowest-level classes in math, reading and writing.

“I didn’t mind starting at the bottom because I wanted to learn the fundamentals and the stuff I’d forgotten,” he said.

Hills took several semesters of remedial or developmental education classes — below the 100 level — before he was prepared for college-level coursework that would count toward the Associate of Science degree he hopes to get from Southern Oregon University.

Hills is one of many students to endure this educational limbo. More than half of Oregon high school graduates enrolling in an Oregon community college have to take remedial classes that may not count toward their degree or be covered by financial aid but are necessary to prepare them for college-level classes.

Between 2004 and 2011, 76 percent of Southern Oregon high school graduates who enrolled at RCC placed in at least one remedial class, said RCC spokesman Grant Walker, citing a Regional Education Laboratory Northwest study.

“And that number has remained pretty steady over the last five years,” Walker said.

The disparity between what students are required to know when they graduate from high school and what they need to know to be successful in college has caught the attention of educators and lawmakers, who are working toward a solution, said Oregon Department of Education spokeswoman Crystal Greene.

“Basically, the standards in K-12 schools aren't aligned with college and career readiness, so kids are graduating not ready for college-level classes or even a career,” Greene said.

In recent years, Oregon has increased its graduation requirements, adopted the more rigorous Common Core standards and encouraged students to take Advanced Placement classes and maintain full class loads through their senior year in hopes of improving student outcomes, Greene said.

Since 2013, a statewide work group has been meeting to examine current educational policies and practices in Oregon and form recommendations of ways to ensure student success in college. Called the Developmental Education Redesign Work Group, it will present its findings to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission and the Oregon Community College Presidents’ Council.

Earlier this year as part of the work group, Michelle Hodara, a senior researcher with Education Northwest, conducted research on developmental education participation and the outcomes of Oregon high school graduates in Oregon community colleges.

According to Hodara’s research, 64 percent of Oregon high school students who graduated between spring 2005 and spring 2011 and entered an Oregon community college between fall 2005 and spring 2012 enrolled in developmental classes, with most students needing math remediation. 

Of the Oregon graduates who started in a community college between 2005 and 2008, only 17 percent — about 12,018 students — were ready for college-level math. Nearly 10 percent started in Math 95; about 30 percent started in Math 60, 65 or 70; and 18 percent in Math 10 or 20.

Of the students who started in Math 10 or 20, only 3 percent had earned a certification, 4 percent had earned an associate degree and 5 percent had earned a four-year degree by 2012.

“The lower students start in developmental education, the less likely they are to persist," according to Hodara.

Remedial classes, although credited at RCC, won’t transfer to a degree at a four-year university but are necessary to make progress toward that degree, said Kirk Gibson, RCC’s vice president of instruction.

However, those credits do count toward requirements for some technical programs offered through RCC, Gibson said.

In recent years, RCC has made an effort to reduce the number of remedial classes in each subject so students complete the sequences sooner and can move on to general education classes.

“Research is very clear that the longer a student is in developmental ed, the less likely the student is to get out of it,” Gibson said.

The college also has been working closely with its K-12 partners at the state and local levels to better define outcomes and expectations, and “hopefully, make students more successful at all levels,” Gibson said.

“The expectations are different at the high school level than in college,” he said. “For example, you can take algebra over a year in high school, whereas here it’s taught in a quarter.”

Fewer remedial classes are offered at the university level. SOU offers three math classes below the 100 level. All three are available for credit but do not count toward the 180 credits needed to graduate, said SOU spokesman Ryan Brown.

However, there has been a slight downward trend in those classes at the university level in recent years, with 115 students in remedial math class in fall 2011, 106 in fall 2012, 75 in 2013 and 80 this fall, Brown said.

Bob Kieran, director of institutional research for the Oregon University System, said some students may not need to take remedial classes but do it to get a higher GPA, while a small percentage of students may place in a lower-level class but convince a faculty member that they can pass a college-level class.

“The thing colleges have to wrestle with is either lowering admission requirements and letting you in, or maintaining their high standards and cutting you off,” Kieran said.

Out of the class of 2012, 68 South Medford High School students and 83 North Medford High School students started at an Oregon public university during the 2012-13 academic year. Of those students, 15 from South and three from North took remedial classes, according to OUS’s freshmen profile.

Kieran said the ironic thing is that kids seem to be graduating from high school with better grades and GPAs, while their SAT scores have remained relatively flat.

Nearly half — about 47.9 percent — of the students in Oregon’s class of 2014 took the SAT exam, offered through the College Board. Of those students, 47.8 percent met the SAT college and career readiness benchmark score of 1550 out 2400 possible points. The benchmark is associated with a 65 percent probability of obtaining a B- or higher in a freshman college class.

During the 2013-14 school year, 196 North Medford and 164 South Medford students took the SATs, averaging a score of 1473 and 1452, respectively.

A smaller percentage — about 36 percent — of the students in Oregon’s class of 2014 took the ACT exam. Of those students, 67 percent met college-readiness benchmarks in English, 49 percent in reading, 47 percent in math, 40 percent in science and 30 percent in all four subjects. So far, about 70 students from North and South Medford high schools have taken the ACTs this year.

“What kids accomplish in high school now compared to 10 years ago, the expectation and the level of rigor has gone up exponentially,” said South Medford Assistant Principal Donnie Frazier.

“I don’t buy that fewer and fewer kids are prepared for college. We are helping kids get into college and have more post-secondary options than ever before,” he added.

In 2013, 32 percent of Medford School District high school students enrolled in a four-year college and 22 percent enrolled in a two-year college within a year of graduating.

Tabbitha Kukert, 22, didn't graduate from high school but got her GED in 2012. Her classes this fall, her first semester at RCC, include Math 20, Reading 30 and Writing 20.

“It’s what I got on my placement,” she said.

Kukert has to take one more remedial reading class and several more remedial math classes to get to college classes. From there she hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree in medical imaging technology.

“I wasn't disappointed with what I got,” she said. “I skipped school. I got the classes that I know I need.”

Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.