When arguing about college readiness, reformsters like to point to the number of college freshmen placed in remedial courses are proof that high schools aren't rigorous enough with coursework, aren't honest enough with grades, and aren't standardized enough with curriculum.
There are problems with that. First of all, we keep using the words "college ready" as if we know what that means. We don't. Ready for which college? Ready for which major at that college? You'll for instance see a stat about how very few students get high enough scores in reading and math, as if a student can only be college ready if she has sufficient background to major in both.
But hey-- if colleges say they need to put more and more freshmen in remedial courses, doesn't that mean something. I'd say yes, it does. It means one or more of the following:
1) The college has decided to increase its revenue flow by requiring more students to take more remedial courses that do not count toward graduation (but which must still be paid for). Since remedial coursework can be taught by the lowest rung on the professorial ladder, they're cheap to put on.
2) The college has decided to increase its revenue flow by loosening its acceptance standards to take students who aren't really prepared to be there. If Pat got Cs in vocational-prep classes in our high school, don't act all surprised that Pat turns out to be ill-equipped for your mid-rigor college. This makes us crazy at the high school level-- we try to tell Pat, "Look, if you want to go to a really good college, these are the classes you need to take and the skills you need to master," and pat just laughs, because Pat knows a student who snoozed to a Barely Passing GPA and was still happily accepted by Wossamatta U. In this way colleges shoot us all in the foot-- part of the challenge of getting maximum challenge to high school students is that some students have always said," Hmm, what's the easiest, lightest courseload I can get away with here." Don't tell us that Pat wasn't ready for your medium-tough college-- we told you Pat wasn't ready and you sent an acceptance letter anyway.
3) High school grads really are less prepared for college than they used to be. Hmmmm. What has changed about public high schools over the past decade that might account for students getting a lousier education than they used to. It's possible that higher remediation rates are simply further proof that the Common Core and test-centered schooling are failures.
4) Colleges lie. All I have here is anecdotal evidence, but I find it compelling the number of times that I've had a former student tell me about their college saying, "You need to take this remedial course" and the students saying, "No, I don't think so" and not taking the course and never having any trouble academically.
Now, in this morning's Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay offers some research to support at least one of my theories.
Barshay writes about the Alaska Study, conducted by the USED and looking at the University of Alaska, which has not atypically huge remediation numbers-- about a half are placed in "developmental" math, and about a third in "developmental" English. The study suggests that if the university scrapped their placement test and just looked at student high school grades, they'd have had better predictors of the students' college performance. Barshay is not unsympathetic to the university's plight:
And it’s easy to sympathize with college administrators who want to use an objective test. After all, students attend different high schools and take different classes. Some are rigorous. Some aren’t. Some teachers give easy A’s. Others are tough graders. Why would it be fair to let the student who took easy classes waltz into a college course, while the student who struggled under a demanding teacher is dispatched to a remedial class? Wouldn’t be better to figure out exactly what students know?
Theoretically, yes. Practically speaking, no. The study found a much higher correlation between high school GPA and college achievement than between placement test results and college grades. The study even found a bunch of examples of my #4-- students who bypassed the remedial courses they were supposed to take and did just fine.
Michelle Hodara, lead author of the study, has some thoughts about why the placement test system doesn't work. For one thing, it may have been over a year since the students last sat in a math class, "but once they’re immersed in math classes again, it comes back to them, and they don’t really need to repeat an entire year of algebra."
Hodara has another theory that I find intriguing:
Hodara argues that what students know, or “content knowledge,” isn’t the most important thing anyway. She says that GPAs capture important non-cognitive skills that tests don’t. “It’s likely that if you have a high GPA, even if you’re in an ‘easy’ class, you likely showed up and turned your homework in, and did things that are important for college readiness and success,” said Hodara.
I'm not going to get too excited about this single study. It covered just four years' worth of students at just one university, so while it's certainly suggestive, it's also possible that many of the problems it uncovered are problems specific to the University of Alaska. But it joins a body of research reaching similar conclusions (here's a big fat study from 2012 also concluding that screening tests were doing a crappy job and colleges should just check the GPA).
The rate of college remedial class placement certainly means something, and that includes the possibility that the process used by colleges to place students in those courses is just chock-full of baloney and bad data.