Education Week has a fascinating story this week on emerging research showing that many college students testing into remedial classes don’t need to be there.
A challenge in writing about education is the assumption factor. In Georgia, 70,000 students take remedial classes each year at our public colleges at an annual cost of $55 million. Nationally, the price tag is $7 billion.
We all despair that so many students are showing up at college unprepared and conclude that high schools aren’t doing their jobs.
But we never ask: Are these students being correctly identified?
Could it be that all some of them need are short-term refresher courses? Consider that many students are not entering college directly from high school and may have forgotten some of their math. According to Ed Week, close to a third of all entering college students are not coming directly from high school.
One study cited in the Ed Week story found that 20 percent of students in remedial math and 25 percent in reading were “severely misidentified,” which means they could have passed the entry level college courses with a grade of B or better.
This is an important issue as state legislatures, including ours, complain that high schools are at fault because they’re passing along kids who don’t know the material. Yet, an interesting element in this new research is that high school transcripts provide the fullest picture of what a student is capable of and what placement is appropriate.
Many posters contend that grade inflation makes report cards unreliable testimony to student ability, but several studies have found that grades — even from under performing high schools — speak to critical components of success, including dedication and perseverance.
From Ed Week, but please look at full story:
Separate studies from Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education come to the same conclusion: The way colleges are using standardized placement tests such as the College Board’s Accuplacer, ACT’s Compass, and others can misidentify students, and secondary schools and universities should work to develop a more comprehensive profile of students’ strengths and weaknesses in performing college-level work.
The problem is coming to the fore as more states move to align their academic standards for college and career readiness with the Common Core State Standards and federal Race to the Top requirements and more high schools receive data on how their graduates are faring in colleges.
Thomas W. Brock, the new commissioner of the National Center for Education Research and a veteran higher education researcher, said improving remedial education has become a top research and policy concern. “It’s a huge need,” he said. “At many institutions, it’s a majority of students coming in and being placed into developmental ed.—and this is where it starts to bleed into the financial-aid agenda, because they’re using up valuable semesters of financial aid, which of course are not endless.”
According to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics, 3 million new students enter higher education each year, and fully half take at least one catch-up course while they are enrolled—at a cost of nearly $7 billion a year for the noncredit-bearing classes.
“If you’re working in community colleges, especially urban community colleges, you get used to those numbers,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College and an author of one study, which was published under the auspices of the National Bureau of Economic Research and presented at last month’s American Economics Association meeting in San Diego. “Remediation is the typical experience now.”
Those high rates of remediation have long been used by education policymakers to suggest that primary and secondary schools do not prepare students adequately for college-level work. They were one of the key arguments behind the development of the common core and other standards-reform initiatives, and states such as Illinois include remediation rates in feedback reports to high schools.
“It’s being used in some places for high school accountability, so this certainly raises a word of caution,” said Ms. Scott-Clayton. “We can’t just take the remediation rate as purely objective and without problems. Is this accountability gone awry?”
Ms. Scott-Clayton analyzed the high school transcript information, college-placement-test scores, and college progress of more than 50,000 students in a large, unnamed urban community college system and a separate statewide college system in the same state, which also is not identified. In the urban college system, which includes a high-minority population, she found three out of every four students were assigned to at least one remedial class; nearly 80 percent of all those who took the mathematics placement test were assigned to a remedial course. In the statewide system, the numbers were only slightly better: 70 percent of students who took the math placement test and 58 percent of those who took the English test were assigned to noncredit-bearing catch-up classes.
To determine whether all those students were really so unprepared for college-level work, Ms. Scott-Clayton examined the students’ actual high school and college credits earned and grades received. She found that 20 percent of students placed in remedial math and 25 percent of those placed in remedial reading were “severely misidentified,” meaning that not only could they have passed the entry college course in that subject, but they could have done so with a grade of B or better.
“So much focus and attention is on the students who are not succeeding, and how to help them succeed, that there just was not much talk about, ‘Hey, maybe there are some people in remediation who don’t need to be there,’” Ms. Scott-Clayton said.
Broader measures do increase accuracy, Ms. Scott-Clayton said; she found 30 percent lower rates of severe misidentification when placement decisions incorporated high school transcript data, including a student’s GPA, total courses taken and credits earned, honors classes taken, total classes in English and math, and the number of F grades received.
“The high school transcript info is basically more accurate for every group we look at,” Ms. Scott-Clayton said. “It’s true that it’s more subjective, but you are getting multiple measurements accumulated over time across several instructors. And it is capturing a broader array of skills, not just pure mechanical test-taking skills, but effort, persistence, motivation—things that we know matter a lot for college success.”
As part of researchers Angela Boatman and Bridget T. Long’s developmental-placement project at Harvard’s Strategic Data Project, Lindsay Daugherty, an associate policy researcher with the RAND Corp., also found test-based misplacement in a large school district and community college system in Texas. They found that at several community colleges requiring universal placement tests, 30 percent of students assigned to remediation were considered “college ready” based on their scores on the ACT, SAT, and state Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS, readiness assessments.
“Everyone understands what a good SAT score or ACT score is. It’s much more difficult, even within a local district to find the cutoff scores,” Ms. Daugherty said.
Ms. Daugherty found the Texas students often did not know how the tests worked, what a remedial class was, or “that they wouldn’t get college credit but they would have to pay for it and it could be up to a year of remedial courses,” she said. “These tend to be higher-performing, low-income minority students whose parents don’t have the time and resources to worry about whether a placement test affects their kids.”Students don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into until they’re halfway into the course,” she said.
In Ms. Daugherty’s study, to be presented at the March meeting of the Association for Education Finance and Policy, she found those refresher courses can reduce remediation placements. “Most of these higher math-performing students hadn’t been in algebra for three to four years, maybe,” she said. “They needed to just sit down for three or four hours and do some algebra problems, and it would come right back to them.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog