Sunday, September 21, 2014

How Much College Remediation Is Really Needed?

When reformsters want to beat the College Ready drum, they get out the sticks of college remediation statistics. Tons, mountains, endless chains of entering freshmen must be remediated, they declare. Clearly, high schools are turning out defective products. Something Must Be Done. Otherwise we will continue to fall behind Estonia and be conquered by Finland or Vikings, or something.

I've talked about this before, and I've offered some explanations.

1) The admissions process has stopped screening for Students Who Can Be Successful Here and moved on to screening for Students Willing To Come Here And Who Have Access To Money.

2) Let's make students take extra courses that we can charge for but which don't count toward a diploma. After the original post, I heard from college folks who swore no such thing happens ever, and college students who said, "That totally happened to me," so I'm concluding this is a localized issue and not a universal one.

3) Marketing. We've been trying to convince all students that they must all go to college or they will end up alone, unloved and living in a one room apartment over a hardware store and eating cat food they've warmed up on a hot plate.

Bonus reason) As we spend more and more time getting students ready to take standardized tests, we spend less and less actually preparing them for college.

Well, thanks to blog reader Ajay Srikanth, I've been reading up on the work of Judith Scott-Clayton. Scott-Clayton and colleagues Peter M. Crosta and Clive R. Belfield published some research back in 2012 on this very subject, and Scott-Clayton (Columbia University) penned this little piece for the New York Times.

She was spinning off an article about how early medical screening might not be all it's cracked up to be. And she applies the same thoughts to college placement exams and the remediation they often lead to.

While remediation rates based on placement exams has increased dramatically, Scott-Clayton notes that the major increase is among students with strong high school grades.

For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled (see chart below). This is not a result of high school grade inflation – the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed – but is consistent with increasingly ubiquitous placement testing.
Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students database; computation by N.C.E.S. QuickStats.

Scott-Clayton considers two important questions raised by all this.

First, is there even any benefit to the remediation, because "remediation has been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle of postsecondary education, because the majority of those who enter never make it out. " 

The second point is so obvious I feel foolish for not having originally considered it. 

Maybe the placement tests just suck.

Scott-Clayton, whose research covers this very subject, says "the tests commonly used to screen for college readiness are only weakly related to college outcomes" and cites two studies mentioned in another NYT piece that say so. Students who go on to have trouble in college pass the test, and students who would have done just fine fail it. This is a murky area of coulda-woulda-shoulda, but Scott-Clayton estimates that one in four remediated math students could have pulled B-or-better grades without remediation, and one in three English students would have done the same in freshman comp.

Scott-Clayton further figures that remediation rates could be dropped by 8 to 12 percent just by exempting strong high school students from placement tests, with no drop in the college's pass-fail rate. At the very least, this would be a cheaper solution that re-tooling the entire US public secondary school system.

Scott-Clayton posits that this system remains in place, like medical screening, because you can regret failing to catch a Bad Thing before it happened, but little regret is involved in pursuing a solution that may not have been necessary. I mean, as long as we've had a dog, our home has not been attacked by Vikings. Maybe we don't need a big floppy chocolate lab to keep the Vikings away, but do we want to take that chance? I think not.

So once again we find that Common Core supporters are trying to sell the Core as a solution that won't work for a problem we don't have. Well, actually, it might work. Since the real problem is that too many incoming freshmen are failing poorly designed standardized placement exams, giving them more high school training taking badly designed standardized tests might indeed fix the problem. Of course, so would throwing the exams out the window and just focusing on actual education. We could prepare them to take college courses instead of preparing them for college placement exams. But we wouldn't want to get too crazy. Vikings, you know.


  1. When did they start measuring college readiness or need for college remediation?

  2. Has the question of whether colleges are accepting 'weaker' students (however that may be defined) been studied? Has the question of whether colleges are expecting more of freshmen been asked or studied? It's certainly true that we've made non-college options less attractive and scarcer.

  3. The question of whether the tests are valid measurements is spot on. I'm also curious about the rates of placement testing. Have they changed? Have the tests themselves changed?

    1. The tests/processes themselves change quite often, as there's a growing industry of outsourced placement systems (Google "Accuplacer" for one example) that market their constant changes as "innovations." Part of that "innovation" is an increasing reliance on outsourced, often machine-based scoring systems (I teach mostly first-year writing courses, so I find this trend extra troubling). Some campuses are using adapted CLEP tests for placement, which has the added benefit of shifting the cost to the students, who have to pay for the test no matter what the result, instead of to the department or university for administering and scoring the test.

  4. When Max, our 11 year old Airedale can no longer defend us, I'll be looking more seriously at Chocolate Labs. Thanking you for making me laugh on this grey Sunday afternoon in upstate western NY.

  5. This is definitely one of the points where everything stops making any sense, even if you're trying to follow the reformer logic. The fact of the matter is that if kids aren't passing the college placement tests, we didn't need an entirely new set of standards to come up with a new high school test for college readiness. We could have just made passing the existing college placement tests a prerequisite for graduation. I'm not saying it is a good idea, I'm just saying it is the shortest distance between two points.

    Layer onto that the fact that the College Board was (supposedly?) one of the main players in drafting the CC, *and* one of the main players in the placement test market (Accuplacer), and... ??? The whole process just swallows its own tail.

    I've taken RI's 11th grade math assessment (NECAP) and the Accuplacer placement test. Accuplacer is vastly easier and more straightforward. Every question on the NECAP takes some serious thought, combining multiple mathematical techniques and reasoning. Accuplacer is... pretty much a standard test of math procedures. It is probably vastly easier than the Common Core tests will be. So from this we can conclude... ??? I don't even know.

  6. I teach both regular freshman comp and remedial freshman comp (the one they have to pass before they can take the regular one) in a university with 80% first generation college students. I can attest to the fact that there is a HUGE grey area at the cutoff between the two classes. I have many in 097 who could do just fine in 102 and many in 102 who maybe should have been placed in 097. The tests do a LOUSY job screening kids.

    Fortunately, my department is changing to put a greater emphasis on high school GPA, and to offer students a choice of which class they take if they are borderline. This should be an improvement.

    But, I also agree that we have sold the false idea that college is the ONLY path to success. And in my state it is worse, because if they want to qualify for the state scholarship, they must begin right after high school. They can't work and grow up a bit before they figure out what they really want to do.

  7. Thanks for the shoutout! More from Judith Scott Clayton:

    As a high school teacher, the lack of college readiness argument irritates me

  8. Peter, there's another layer of context here too. As you note, we have students who "aren't prepared" for college, and we have basic/remedial college programs that "don't work."

    What we also have are for-profit concerns that are capitalizing on that "creative tension" by offering to outsource remediation (and often gen-ed courses as well, intentionally conflating them in their marketing materials). Pearson is one example--they're now selling canned general education math and writing courses.

    We have other for-profit concerns that are selling "prior learning credits" (originally intended as way to acknowledge that work, life, military, and other kinds of experiences could meaningfully overlap some college curriculum), and we're increasingly seeing students claim credit for remedial and gen-ed courses via these credit-laundering companies that make gazillions of dollars for doing nothing except making curricular decisions about awarding credits in programs they don't know anything about for coursework they don't know anything about.

    Neat, huh?