Monday, June 6, 2016

Remedial Baloney

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.


  1. After 27 years in high school English, I now teach in a small, regional university, with 80% first generation college students, that is required to have open enrollment. We have used ACT scores for placement forever, but we are finally coming around to using GPA instead. I suspect we will have fewer Dev.ed. placements, but not a much lower pass rate.

    I have reminded my colleagues for several years now that just because a student doesn't know something, it doesn't mean their teachers didn't teach it. Poor college students were often poor high school students.

  2. Another factor to consider, does a language major or an art major need remedial math? Many students are in remedial classes that are not required for their desired area of study. This too is difficult to ferret out of the numbers.

  3. Can I add a suggestion for a No. 5 with regard to English courses? Some of the professors assigned to teach writing (composition and literary criticism courses) don't actually like to teach writing and don't really do it very well (because doing it well is kinda hard), so they would prefer you come to the university already knowing how to write well.

    This has been my experience, anyway.

    1. Many high school and middle school English teachers don't have confidence in teaching writing, either. I have been begging for separate reading and writing courses at the MS level and keep getting brushed off. By the time the kids get to HS and beyond, they have innumerable bad habits to break.

    2. I think the main problem is that at too many universities a literature department was put in charge of writing instruction. This created a need to expand the faculty of English departments and especially the number of Ph.D. students.

  4. Many colleges are switching to use GPA's instead of placement tests. I think that this parallels the movement to use GPA's instead of SAT/ACT scores for admissions. I would imagine that the studies showing that GPA is a better predictor of college success than SAT/ACT scores would be relevant to the placement test debate.

    As for the point about low-admissions standards, how does that apply to community colleges? Community colleges are typically open-admission. They take anyone with a high school diploma or GED. They have to have some sort of screening process.

    Also, I'm not sure that colleges generate more tuition revenue by requiring remediation. It might depend on the college. The easiest way to increase revenue for a college that has many remedial students would be to place all of them in college-credit courses and make it easy to pass these courses. This would keep students headed for graduation and really increase retention rates. That would increase revenue.

    If remedial courses have low pass rates, then this might decrease revenue over the long run.

    1. I agree that remedial classes are not there to generate income. It is generally the lowest performing students that cost the most in terms of faculty and staff time. My university has had to set up a separate mathematics program to teach high school algebra to our college students. It looses money.

      When I began teaching my university had open admission as well. We have since instituted a screening process that requires a C average for a set of academic courses. Perhaps the relatively open admission process is why ACT scores do a pretty good job of predicating student achievement at my university.

    2. Do other departments make money?

    3. Newark,

      For better or worse, mathematics is the only department that offers a remedial class at my university. I think I can state this without fear of contradiction: research one AAU universities would like nothing better than to kill off all remedial classes. We do not offer those classes to make extra revenue, we offer them because students who would never have attempted attending university thirty years ago are showing up at our door, and we have to give them a fighting chance to progress towards a degree.

  5. If we go with number 3 -- not saying that's entirely it, but based on the 8th graders I've been teaching for 7 years, I have my suspicions -- I would say this is the direct legacy of No Child Left Behind. We have an entire generation of students who are tested to death, waiting for one right answer to be given to them, and have so many holes in their learning (ie, science, social studies, the arts) that they can't even make calculated guesses. Example: No American History until 8th grade means they don't understand the political strands that comprise the plot of Halse Anderson's novel Chains. Over reliance on calculators means they don't know basic math facts and have low math fluency. So of course they need remedial in some area. This seems to be part of the overall plan.

    1. The legacy of NCLB and the continued overtesting is that students don't know how to think. They simply deduce or search for the correct answers.

      I teach high school and community college. I used to worry about the intellectual laziness of my students in high school considerably. I still worry but a lot less. My community college teaching experience has shown me that pretty much every kid I get there is terrible at developing and supporting an argument / opinion. I find this to especially be the case with kids who come from schools who hyperfocused on standardized test prep. A first week assignment that I give asks them to rate the importance of seven items historically. Pure opinion with support. They always come back nervous and want to know if the ranked them "correctly." It's really disappointing.

    2. Well you can thank David Coleman for that with his "nobody gives a sh__ about what you think or feel" statement. The CC ELA standards don't allow for any thought/opinion/debate process.... it's all finding text based evidence to support an answer.

  6. No. 2 is the big one, I think. It also goes for "career-ready". When no employer ever will look at a kids high school transcript and make a hiring decision based on what grades they got in algebra and English, why do we continue to tell students that anything they do in school matters? It doesn't, and they are smart enough to know that.