On December 123, 2012 the Charles A. Dana Center, Complete College America, Inc,, Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future issued a joint Statement: Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement (Dec. 12, 2012).
(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)
The objective was ambitious:
As a result of new research and promising practice, we have more clarity than ever about how we can fundamentally transform our developmental education system to improve success for all students. To propel the movement forward, this statement offers a set of clear and actionable principles that, although not the final word on dev ed reform, sets a new course that can dramatically improve the postsecondary success of millions of students across the nation. (joint Statement)
Read more here. AT a time of decreasing student numbers and the tendency among academic institutions to engage in sharper competitive practices for what they deem to be shrinking markets, there is much to mine here. "In the end, the strategies we propose increase overall college completion rates, particularly among students who have traditionally been underserved by our postsecondary institutions." (joint Statement)
Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement (Dec. 12, 2012) pp. 3-5.
What We Have Learned
The current system of remedial education was built on a common sense premise that providing students more time to learn college-ready academic skills through a sequence of ever more demanding math and English courses would provide them the best opportunity to succeed in college. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence that the assumptions and associated practices underlying that approach are flawed. Instead, we have learned that long sequences of fragmented, reductive coursework are not an on-ramp to college for underprepared students, but a dead-end.
Recent research is making clear that if our goal is for students to enter and move through programs of study that lead to completion of a credential, remedial education as it is currently practiced simply cannot get us there. The following conclusions are based on dramatic research findings that reveal the failings of the current system and make the case for fundamental reform.
There is limited evidence of overall effectiveness in remedial education.
The numbers tell a dispiriting story. Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course.1 Too many of these students never overcome being placed into a remedial course. Only about a quarter of community college students who take a remedial course graduate within eight years.2 In fact, most students who are referred to remedial education do not even complete the remedial sequence: One study found 46 percent of students completed the sequence in reading and only 33 percent completed it in math.3
Remedial education course sequences are a key factor in high student attrition. The long sequences of remedial education courses create many opportunities for students to drop out. A student may pass one remedial education course but fail to enroll in the next course. Worse yet, many who complete their remedial sequence never enroll in gateway courses. Thus, reforms to courses, while they may result in modest student learning gains, do not address the larger problem of students failing to persist through their remedial sequence or a college gateway course. Data collected by Complete College America found that among its participating states only 22 percent of community college students and 37 percent of students attending a four-year institution who were placed into remedial education math or English courses completed a gateway class in their designated subject area within two years.4 Not surprisingly, students placed in a sequence of three or more remedial courses have the hardest time. Students who start three levels below college level rarely complete their full sequence within three years — just 16 percent for math and 22 percent for reading.5 It has become increasingly clear that a significant number of students fail to enter a college program of study not because they fail any given remedial course but because they do not enroll in the subsequent remedial or gateway course.
The assessment and placement process is too often an obstacle to college success. Colleges generally place students into remedial classes based primarily on a single score on a standardized test. Yet the evidence on the predictive validity of these tests is not as strong as many might assume, and research fails to find evidence that the resulting placements into remediation improve student outcomes. Recent research has found that a significant percentage of students who are placed into remedial education courses could succeed in gateway courses. An important new study by the Community College Research Center found that, in one community college system, between 40 and 50 percent of students who were placed in remedial math using a single placement exam could have earned a C or better in a gateway math course without remediation.6 In English, the study found somewhere between 40 and 65 percent of students who were placed into remedial English could have earned a C or better in a gateway English course without remediation. Despite the high stakes nature of tests that could significantly delay their progress to a degree, students are often unaware of their importance and consequently do not take the time to prepare or apply the necessary focus the exam demands. Further, most colleges do not require any kind of skills brush-up experience for students prior to administering placement tests. It is increasingly clear that the assessment and placement process alone may be denying students access to college-level courses.
The academic focus of remedial education is too narrow and not aligned with what it takes to succeed in programs of study. The tests used to place students in remedial classes focus on a very narrow set of skills in reading, writing, and math that often have little relationship to the content students need for their preferred programs of study. Remedial education courses are generally designed to prepare students for either college-level English composition or college algebra. Yet specific basic skills requirements differ across fields. For example, math needed for nursing is different from math needed for business or pre-engineering. Writing and reading conventions and skills also differ across fields. With its one-size-fits-all curriculum, remedial education does not provide solid academic preparation for the programs of study most students pursue. As a result, remedial education too often serves as a filter — which sorts students out of college — rather than as a funnel — guiding them into a program of study.7 Although the approach is new, there is growing evidence that contextualizing instruction and focusing on the skills students need to succeed in their program of study is much better than the one size fits all approach currently used in remedial education.
Remedial education does not adequately provide the non-academic supports many students need. Many students enter higher education without clear goals for college and careers. Many also lack college success skills such as note-taking, test-taking, paper writing, time management and career readiness skills that would enable them to choose a program wisely. Research indicates that students, particularly those who are unprepared for college, benefit from “non- academic” supports that help them explore and clarify goals for college and careers, develop college success skills, engage with campus culture, and address the conflicting demands of work, family, and college.8 Most remedial education, as it is typically designed, does not do any of these things. In fact, the stigma and frustration of having to revisit high school material, often taught in the same manner as in high school, frequently leads students to become discouraged and drop out.9
The longer it takes for students to select and begin a program of study, the less likely they are to complete a credential. The sequential structure of typical remedial education programs has another significant cost to students. Recent state-level research concluded that the sooner students enter an academic concentration, which is defined as three courses within an academic program, the more likely they are to succeed. More than half of students who entered a concentration in their first year earned a community college credential or transferred to a four-year college within five years. Of students who entered a concentration in their second year, only about a third completed a credential or transferred; for those who did not enter a program until their third year, the success rate was only around 20 percent.10 If students who have a good chance of success in a gateway course cannot quickly begin coursework within their chosen program or major, their odds of success plummet. Unfortunately, this is the case for too many students, with research from one state indicating that only about 50 percent of community college students (and only 30 percent of low-income students) ever became program “concentrators” by passing at least three college-level courses in a single field — an important milestone on the way to completion.11
The research is clear: Remedial education as it is commonly designed and delivered is not the aid to student success that we all hoped. It is time for policymakers and institutional leaders to take their cue from new research and emerging evidence-based practices that are leading the way toward a fundamentally new model of instruction and support for students who enter college not optimally prepared for college-level work.
1. Judith Scott Clayton and Olga Rodriguez. “Development, Discouragement, or Diversion? New Evidence on the Effects of College Remediation.” NBER Working Paper No. 18328. August, 2012.
2. Thomas R. Bailey. “Challenge and Opportunity: Rethinking the Role and Function of Developmental Education in Community College,” New Directions for Community Colleges 145 (2009): 11–30.
3. Thomas Bailey, Dong Wook Jeong, and Sung-Woo Cho, “Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community Colleges,” Economics of Education Review 29 (March 2012); 255–270.
4. “Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere.” Complete College America. April, 2012.
5. Bailey. “Challenge and Opportunity: Rethinking the Role and Function of Developmental Education in Community College, 11-30.
6. Judith Scott Clayton. “Do High Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success?” CCRC Working Paper No. 41. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. February, 2012.
7. Clayton and Rodriguez. “Development, Discouragement, or Diversion? New Evidence on the Effects of College Remediation.” NBER Working Paper No. 18328. National Bureau of Economic Research. August, 2012.
8. Melinda Mechur Karp. “Toward a New Understanding of Non-Academic Student Support: Four Mechanisms Encouraging Positive Student Outcomes in the Community College,” CCRC Working Paper No. 28, Assessment of Evidence Series. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. 2011.
9. Regina Deil-Amen and James E. Rosenbaum. “The Social Prerequisites of Success: Can College Structure Reduce the Need for Social Know-How?” Annals of the American Academic of Political and Social Science, 586 (March 2003): 120–143.
10. Davis Jenkins and Sung-Woo Cho. “Get with the Program: Accelerating Community College Students’ Entry into and Completion of Programs of Study,” CCRC Working Paper No. 32. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. January, 2012.
11. Davis Jenkins and Madeline Joy Weiss. “Charting Pathways to Completion for Low-Income Community College Students,” CCRC Working Paper No. 34. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. September, 2011.