National Groups Call for Big Changes in Remedial Education

December 13, 2012

Remedial courses meant to get underprepared students ready for college-level work are often not an on-ramp but a dead end, leaders of four national higher-education groups said on Wednesday, recommending sweeping changes in how such students are brought up to speed.

Students required to take a sequence of remedial, or developmental, courses before they can sign up for credit-bearing ones often get discouraged and drop out, and many would be better off in gateway courses, with extra support built in, according to the groups' report, "Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement."

The report—by Complete College America, the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future—is based on studies by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College and other organizations that have concluded that the nation's remedial-education system is broken.

More developmental students should be placed directly into full-credit college courses, the report recommends, accompanied by services such as mandatory tutoring and facilitated computer labs.

"Many less-prepared students can successfully complete college-level English and math courses that are the gateways to their programs of study on time in their first year when structured academic supports are built in," Richard Kazis, senior vice president of Jobs for the Future, said in a written statement.

Ready or Not

About half of the students whose placement-test scores now land them in remedial mathematics or English could have earned a C or better if they had enrolled directly in first-year courses, according to a recent study by the Community College Research Center.

But skeptics, including some faculty members who would have to integrate the extra support into their classes, worry that scrapping developmental education could set up students for failure in courses they simply aren't ready for.

How students end up in remedial courses has attracted increasing scrutiny: Placement, the report notes, is usually based on the results of a single standardized test that students generally don't prepare for or take seriously. "Despite the high-stakes nature of tests that could significantly delay their progress to a degree," the report says, "students are often unaware of their importance."

As a result, students who want to become firefighters or paramedics can get stalled on their fourth attempt at pre-algebra, Uri Treisman, director of the Dana Center, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday. "It's time to remove the barriers we've put in the way of students' hopes and plans."

The groups called on governors, legislators, and higher-education leaders to create incentives that would allow for such an overhaul nationally. That would involve changing some state policies to give colleges more discretion in placing students.

Concerns Over Consequences

Some states are already making changes in their remedial-education requirements. In Connecticut, a law signed this year by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy strictly limits remedial requirements for students whose scores on placement tests are below a certain level.

In testimony before a legislative committee, Thomas C. Hodgkin, a professor of English at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, had argued against the state law. "Such enrollments pretty much guarantee failure for the individual student and disruption of the class for the other, adequately prepared students," he said. He also questioned whether professors would have the time and room in the curriculum to offer the embedded support the shift calls for.

Another skeptic is Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University. Going directly into college-level courses, he said, has been proved to work only for students who score just below the cutoff for remediation. The proposed changes, he added, could hurt poor and minority students who score well below the cutoff score and who could be pushed into vocational or technical programs.

The authors of the joint report, however, remain confident that their proposed changes would help more students succeed. Adopting some of the recommendations, including more tutoring and computer labs, may be difficult for cash-strapped colleges, but they would save money if fewer students dropped out, the authors said.

Beyond 'Throwing Rocks'

Nationally, half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community-college students take at least one remedial course, according to the report. And often that first course is as far as they go. Less than half of students referred to remedial courses complete the required sequence in math or reading. After eight years, only a quarter of community-college students who started a remedial course have earned a degree.

"The more courses you take, the more time you spend in college, the more life intervenes, and the more likely you are to drop out," said Mr. Kazis, of Jobs for the Future.

Fewer than one in 10 students referred to three or more semesters of remedial math ended up completing the first-year college-level math course for which they were preparing, the studies behind the report found. For English, fewer than one in three students who were referred to that many remedial courses ended up completing the college-level course they were preparing for.

The groups identified seven core principles they said should govern an overhaul of remedial education. Among them:

  • Colleges shouldn't rely on a single test to place students in the appropriate classes.
  • Students who are significantly underprepared need accelerated paths to college-level work.
  • Enrollment in gateway college-level courses, with additional academic support, should be the default placement for many more students.
  • The content of those courses should align with a broad category of majors, such as social sciences or human services, that students choose when they enroll in college.

Helping students complete gateway courses, the report says, is key to college completion. Two of the groups that released the report, Complete College America and Jobs for the Future, are largely supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is pouring millions of dollars into efforts to improve college-completion rates nationally.

One community-college leader welcomed the recommendations on Wednesday. "I like the fact that this report holds out promise rather than just throwing rocks," said Reynaldo García, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges, which has been working to accelerate its remedial programs. "It's easy to say all of these things are broken," he said. "This shows a way that we can work together to fix them."