College & Workforce Readiness

Remediation Required of Students Who Don’t Need It, Studies Say

By Catherine Gewertz — February 26, 2013 3 min read
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A group of new research studies has come up with the same conclusion: Many students who are required to take remedial courses in college don’t really need them.

My colleague Sarah Sparks explains it all for you in a story on EdWeek’s website. It’s fascinating and important stuff, especially as the Common Core State Standards—one of the most far-reaching education initiatives to come down the pike in years—roll out across the country.

The spine of the common-standards initiative, of course, is that students aren’t ready for college. They don’t know how to build arguments backed up with evidence. They stumble when given difficult readings. They might be able to do math calculations, but they don’t understand the underlying concepts or their real-world applications. Because college expects these sorts of things from students, millions end up in remedial classes, learning what they should have learned in high school. That’s costly, of course, and linked to lower college-completion rates.

High remediation rates, then, are a key piece of evidence in advocates’ battle to win support for the common standards. If too many students are unready for college, and are winding up in remedial classes, then the cure—at least according to common-core advocates—is top-notch standards that drive top-notch curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

So if new studies from reputable universities conclude that not as many students need remediation as we thought, what does that do to the argument for common standards and assessments?

It might be tempting to think it undercuts the argument by suggesting that students are better off as they enter college than we had thought. But don’t hurry to put your money on that one (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes the rounds).

These studies zero in on the placement tests that are used to determine students’ readiness for college-level work. So it could be that what the new research does is pave the way for elbowing out such tests in favor of the common assessments being designed by two big state consortia. Could it be that these tests will be the “more comprehensive profile of students’ strengths and weaknesses in performing college-level work” that the researchers say is needed?

The studies found that many students were “misidentified” as needing remedial coursework, when their grades and other information—which often weren’t factored into the decision—showed that they could have taken and passed credit-bearing courses. This reinforces the predictive power of grades in projecting college success.

The research could drive colleges to use placement tests in new ways: in conjunction with additional information about students, rather than in isolation. It could lead them to abandon the placement tests they use and embrace new ones, such as those being designed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. After all, the pledge of support that dozens of higher education institutions made to the common-assessment consortia is to support the work to design tests whose results can be accepted as a proxy of readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework. Whether they will stand by those pledges when they see the actual tests is an open question. But for now, the projects are moving ahead with higher-ed support on the premise that a cut score—yet to be determined—will allow students to skip remedial work and glide right into credit-bearing, entry-level courses.

The remaining question, however, is the biggest one: Will a “college ready” score on those assessments indeed mean what the consortia hope it will mean? The research agenda designed to validate the meaning of the cut scores will take some years to provide satisfying answers. And in the meantime, colleges that accept them will have to keep their placement fingers crossed.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.