Remedial ed: Can it improve?

Most community college students enroll in remedial classes. Most remedial students never earn a credential. However, ending remediation won’t raise completion rates, argue USC Professor William G. Tierney and graduate student Julia C. Duncheon in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.

Reformers are targeting remedial education, they write.

Lawmakers in Florida have made remedial classes in math, reading and English optional for students entering community colleges in fall 2014. The placement tests to assess these skills will be optional as well.

Meantime, Tennessee and Connecticut have passed legislation making it easier for students to bypass remediation and enroll directly in courses that lead to graduation and completion of a major. And California State University has lowered its math and English placement test cutoff scores, requiring fewer students to do remedial coursework.

Unprepared students who enroll in remedial classes don’t do any better than similar students who skip remediation, according to Community College Research Center studies. But other research suggests very low-skilled students benefit from remedial education, write Tierney and Duncheon.

Before making remedial classes optional — or eliminating them — colleges should try other options, they argue.

“Accelerated”  (or “mainstreaming”) programs mix low- and high-performing students in college-level classes. Students can get extra help in a support class or lab.

Some colleges create “learning communities” for low-scoring students, while others create mixed groups. At Kingsborough Community College in New York, low-scoring students in learning communities took and passed more college-level courses.

Many students — especially graduates of low-performing, high-poverty high schools — need an academic safety net, Tierney and Duncheon argue. Throwing unprepared students into college coursework will not raise completion rates.


In an essay, a journalism professor recalls a pleasant, hard-working journalism major who was “illiterate.”  She’d received B’s in English before, she claimed. He struggled with whether to fail her — until she plagiarized.

How did “Kari” get so far in college without being able to read or write?

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education, reports Stateline. But some say remedial reforms will doom the college hopes of poorly prepared students.

Indiana high schools must provide extra help to students at risk of placing into remedial classes in college.

Florida will let many public college students skip developmental classes and enroll in college-level courses.

Colorado now lets state universities place borderline students in college-level classes, with extra support, instead of sending them  to community colleges for remedial classes.

Starting in fall 2014, Connecticut’s public colleges will be required to build remedial education into credit-bearing courses. Students will be allowed only one semester of remediation.

Many of the new remediation models work very well for students who need minimal extra help, said Patti Levine-Brown, president of the National Association for Developmental Education. But for students who need more time to get their skills up to college level, she said, “placing them in courses for which they are not prepared is akin to setting them up for failure.”

“We learned in the 1960s that allowing students to take and fail college level courses and retake those classes did not increase completion rates,” Levine-Brown said. “In fact, it resulted in high withdrawal rates and diminished finances for students.”

Unprepared students will pay a price for skipping remediation, predicts Kenneth Ross, vice president for academic and student services at Polk State College in Florida.  “I think they’re going to struggle, and unless we have some other kind of massive tutoring support which they’ve not funded us for,  they’re going  . . . to struggle and then flunk out.”

Completion is costly

Improving community college completion rates is difficult and expensive, concludes a new study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia.

Community colleges are under pressure to increase completion rates and efficiency, write Clive Belfield, Peter M. Crosta and Davis Jenkins. But “many students who fail to complete are far short of the program requirements.” Some strategies will provide more degrees for the dollar.

In the community college they studied, “there would be substantial gains in completion rates and efficiency from helping students transfer with an award and from helping students with 30+ credits to graduate.” However, persuading more students to persist is
“both an expensive and inefficient reform.”

It’s important to understand the whole college process, not just inputs and outputs, write Belfield and Jenkins in an Inside Higher Ed commentary.

Improving the quality of instruction in introductory courses won’t help if students can’t access high-demand majors, such as nursing. Pouring resources into one early intervention won’t help if other programs lose resources and decline in quality as a result. And increasing retention rates won’t improve efficiency if it leads students to drop out in their second year instead of their first. In fact, improved retention requires more upper-level courses (which tend to cost more) and makes colleges look less efficient if graduation rates remain unchanged.

If community colleges can find ways to improve students’ college readiness — perhaps by collaborating with feeder high schools — they’ll improve their efficiency significantly.

Colleges rely heavily on placement exams

Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.

Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.

Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.

Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.

For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)

The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.

However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.

California OKs college reforms

California community colleges will give enrollment priority to new students and those following a course of study leading to a credential under a reform plan approved by the system’s board of governors Monday after a three-hour hearing, reports the Los Angeles Times. Students who’ve earned more than 100 credits will be last in line for classes and will not be eligible for fee waivers. Recreational and enrichments classes will pay their own way or be dropped.

Some protest the changes will make it harder for low-income, minority and part-time students to access community colleges.

The Legislature will consider the reforms, many of which require amending education codes.

Proposed by a state task force, the reform package aims to increase graduation and transfer rates.

Among the 22 recommendations are proposals requiring all colleges to use a single assessment for English and math skills and prioritizing registration and fee waivers for students who have concrete goals, such as a degree, certificate or transfer to a four-year college.

Course offerings and schedules would be aligned with student needs, including a focus on basic skills and classes needed to transfer. Campuses would also be required to publish score cards detailing their performance in such areas as completion rates.

New students will be required to go through orientation to help choose the right classes. That will require more funding for counselors and other student services. Many who spoke to the board doubted the money would be allocated.

Others spoke in support of the plan.

“I do believe this is the greatest opportunity this system has ever had to close the achievement gaps that exist in California’s community colleges,” said Eloy Oakley, superintendent and president of Long Beach City College.

While the reforms are an improvement, part-time students and those seeking a liberal education could be short-changed, argues a Los Angeles Times editorial.

All students would be required to articulate a goal by the end of the first year of college, and a full educational plan by the end of the third semester. In addition, the state would target its funding of the colleges to discourage them from offering courses that aren’t showing up in those educational plans.

. . . The mandate for educational plans should be based on the number of credits taken, not on a point in time. The colleges hope to persuade more students to enroll full time, because such students have higher graduation rates. But pushing a student who needs to work into full-time studies could be counterproductive.

In addition, the plan should give students more leeway to take courses outside their study plans, the Times editorializes.  ”A computer student who wants to take a literature course to deepen her education should be encouraged to do so, as long as she doesn’t go beyond her allotted 100 credits. . . Colleges don’t just churn out degrees and certificates; they’re supposed to encourage students to think big and try new things.”


‘Dream’ adds 23 ‘leader colleges’

Achieving the Dream has added 23 community colleges to its list of 52 “leader colleges,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

These colleges improved graduation rates, closed achievement gaps and changed lives, said the nonprofit. For example,  Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas strengthened remedial education coursework and increased the college’s three-year completion rate to 24 percent from 10 percent over a four-year period.