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Why Is It So Hard to Fix Our System of Remedial Education?

February 02, 2012

In the United States, 60 percent of recent high school graduates enter community college already behind. These students are required to take “remedial” classes—essentially do-overs of high school courses—and there is a large body of evidence to indicate it isn’t working.

Remedial education can consist of up to four semesters of instruction in both math and English. Students must pay tuition for these courses, but the credits they earn do not count towards graduation. While the cost to schools of providing remediation has been estimated at $2 billion or more, only a quarter of remedial students ever go on to obtain a college degree or credential.

Community colleges are keenly aware that the system is broken, but they experience ongoing frustration when they try to make changes. In a recent report, we identified some of the impediments colleges face when they try to implement a better system. In particular, we found there are several sets of conflicting goals that throw a wrench into reform efforts.

Most community colleges exist as part of a larger system. We found that there is ongoing tension between central offices’ efforts to impose uniform policies for student assessment and placement into remedial classes, and individual colleges’ desire to be autonomous. This tension stems from the fact that there is currently no assessment method that can definitively determine whether students are ready for college-level classes. As a result, even if states or systems set a central policy, individual colleges tend to perceive it as ineffective and push back against it. Consequently, the assessment test cut-off scores used by central offices and colleges are often inconsistent, and none effectively predict success.

The second tension flows from the first: colleges know the tests they use to assess students are imperfect, but they must evaluate thousands of incoming students every year, and short standardized tests seem the only feasible way to accomplish this task. Faced with this seemingly unresolvable conflict, colleges continue to rely on their faulty assessments to make placement decisions. As a result, a significant number of students are misplaced: some assigned to college-level courses need remediation, and many placed in remediation don't need it to pass college classes.

Finally, colleges struggle with the competing goals of promoting student progression through college and upholding standards. Assignment to remediation is associated with extremely low rates of college completion; one contributing factor may be the length of time it takes to get through remedial sequences. In fact, research suggests that among students with the same remedial test scores, those who take an “accelerated” track, including skipping remediation entirely, have similar or better college outcomes than those who follow the traditional sequence. But without a remedial screening system, college-level courses would be flooded with underprepared students. Faculty members fear this would present them with an unpleasant choice: relax standards, or fail large numbers of students.

We believe the central cause of these three tensions is a misalignment between the skills evaluated by the standardized tests, the content of remedial courses, and the knowledge students need to succeed in college-level classes. To create a more coherent system, colleges should bring faculty together to identify common learning outcomes for remedial and key introductory college classes. Placement tests should then be developed around these outcomes, made up of progressive modules that test increasingly advanced knowledge. Colleges can then add or subtract modules based on what a student plans to study. For instance, a student pursuing a STEM field would have to take and pass more advanced math modules than one pursuing liberal arts.  

Colleges should condense and accelerate remedial classes, ensuring they provide targeted support for weaknesses identified in the placement tests and prepare students for particular fields of study. For instance, “developmental math for business and accounting majors.” These common learning outcomes and goals would ensure the maintenance of high learning standards, and provide a foundation for continuous improvement in the craft of teaching. With these changes, a more coherent system would emerge; one tightly focused on what students need to know to succeed in college.

You can read the complete study here

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