A third of students in remedial classes don't need to be there

Between 40% and 60% of first-year students take remedial courses in English, math, or both, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. But only 10% of students who begin their college career in remedial classes graduate on time. And two out of three remedial students don’t earn a degree at all.

Even more, about one third of the college students placed in remedial courses are "misdirected" and could succeed in college-level courses, finds a new report from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) and social policy researcher MDRC. This happens because students are placed into remedial courses based on their scores from placement exams, which don't accurately measure students' preparedness for college-level work, according to the report.

The researchers suggest that students' placement should be determined by multiple factors, including non-cognitive assessments and high school GPA, rather than by placement scores alone. Writing for Campus Technology, Dian Schaffhauser suggests that high school GPA may be a particularly important measure, as it "tracks performance over multiple years and reflects not just content knowledge but behaviors, such as attendance and participation, that influence college success."

At least three other reports back up the CCRC's and MDRC's findings, including reports from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the University of Texas at Austin's Center for Community College Student Engagement, and Education Northwest. They all agree that multiple assessments, including high school GPA, are more accurate predictors of how much remediation—if any—students really require.

"Because developmental education requires student time and expense, it may discourage some potential college students. It is important to ensure that those who could succeed in college-level courses get the opportunity to take them upon entry into college," the report concludes.

Why so many students end up in the wrong math and English courses

Some colleges are already working to avoid misplacing students by assessing students' non-cognitive qualities, such as motivation and problem-solving. Other colleges are implementing co-requisite instruction, which allows students to immediately enroll in degree-required coursework while receiving additional academic support. For example, Cuyamaca College and Guttman Community College have adopted the co-requisite model to successfully replace remedial math courses.

And North Carolina's community college system passed rules in 2013 that allow students with a high school GPA of at least 2.6 and a minimum number of high school courses to bypass remedial placement exams. A report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement found that students who took advantage of this model were more likely to pass their first credit-bearing math or English courses than those who sat for placement exams (Paterson, Education Dive, 9/12; Schaffhauser, Campus Technology, 9/10).

Related: No, you don't have to make classes "easier" to improve student outcomes


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