Experts Debate Effectiveness of Remediation

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Researchers are divided over whether remediation actually improves children's long-term achievement.

Many advocates of Chapter 1 have argued that it has been responsible for an improvement in the basic skills of disadvantaged youngsters, as evidenced by the rising scores of black 9-year-olds on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But others contend that the money spent on remediation has been wasted.

In the January 1983 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, for example, Stephen P. Mullin and Anita A. Summers, a research associate and a professor of public management, respectively, at the University of Pennsylvania, reviewed 47 studies of the effectiveness of remedial education.

The review showed, they said, that remediation has a positive but small effect on the achievement of disadvantaged students, that the results in most studies were overstated, that the gains students made were not maintained, that there was no approach or program characteristic that was consistently found effective, and that there was no significant association between the amount of money spent on remediation and the gains achieved.

Moreover, no particular grade level could be identified as particularly advantageous for intervention, they reported.

"There's some indication that remediation efforts can work, but I've never seen a statement that for this many dollars invested, we should get this much gain on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills," said Harold L. Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute of Education and a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "And to that extent, the legislature is putting its money down a rathole, because you can't really guarantee that you're going to get those improved scores--which is why they'd rather fund excellence, I think."

Added Kim Marshall, director of curriculum for the Boston Public3Schools: "Even the best remedial programs are probably just going to get the lower kids above the minimum standards. But in terms of closing the gap--that's not even the point. The point is equity of minimum outcomes."

Improvements Occur

Where statewide tests have been in place for some time, test scores have improved, but it is hard to know how much of that is due to the remedial services that students receive.

In the past few years, for example, students' performance on high-school exit tests has improved in states like Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and New Jersey.

"I think what's made the difference is that focusing instructional attention on key learning outcomes can produce mastery of those outcomes," said Pat D. Forgione, chief of the office of research and evaluation for the Connecticut State Department of Education. "I don't think it's any surprise that if people really have fixed targets instructionally, you can really make a difference."

But according to Thomas B. Corcoran, director of urban development with Research for Better Schools in Philadelphia and former director of testing and evaluation for the New Jersey State Department of Education, the reasons for test-score improvement are not clear.

Improvements could be due to increased motivation for students and teachers, better alignment between the tests and the curriculum, better test-taking skills on the part of students, and more teachers who teach to the test at the expense of other subjects, as well as to the increased availability of remediation services, he and others contend.

Some educators say that teaching to a test may not be an unsound approach if the test focuses on skills that students really need to have. But they also acknowledge that it can result in a lot of mindless "drill and skill" work for students, and in "narrow" curricula that only teach the basics that are likely to be test-ed. Linda Darling Hammond, a researcher with the Rand Corporation in Washington, D.C., noted that such "drill and skill" work is particularly likely where the funds for remediation are limited.

"Too many remedial programs are really a series of mini-tests," said Mr. Marshall. "Students cannot learn by worksheet and drill alone. There must be teaching--actual face-to-face instruction."

Mr. Corcoran said that during his years in New Jersey, an excessive reliance on testing had pushed social-studies and science courses out of some cities' elementary and middle-school classrooms almost entirely.

A similar problem spurred Philadelphia officials to create a new standardized curriculum, which ensures that such subjects will be taught. In contrast to many statewide tests, Philadelphia's own new testing program will test students in the content areas of mathematics, reading, science, and social studies.

Effects Down the Road

Educators say that it is too soon to tell whether the new tests--or the remediation that accompanies them--will have a positive effect on schooling. As with other reform measures that increase schools' expectations of students, it will take a while to see results, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University.

"One possibility is that the kids will rise to meet the new expectations and the ones that don't will be handled through remedial programs," he said. "The other possibility is that these students will become discouraged, bored, and drop out. I just think it's too early to know."

Noted Ms. Hammond: "Schools already know who will do well and poorly on these tests before students take them. Testing is not teaching. ... The ultimate question is what you do as a result. And if what you do doesn't really change the quality of the educational experience that kids receive, then you have failed.''--lo

Vol. 04, Issue 38

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