(This post has been updated with a response from Achieve President Michael Cohen. It has been further updated with a response from Carol Burris)

Are a large percentage of high school graduates so unprepared for college when they get there that they have to take remedial courses to catch up? School reformers like to say so, and throw out big percentages of students who are said to need remediation. But where do these figures come from, and are they accurate? Award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York  looks at this issue in the following post.

Burris has been exposing the problems with New York’s botched school reform effort for a long time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, herehere,  here, and here.) She previously wrote about remediation rates here. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.

By Carol Burris

College remediation rates are used to justify the need for the Common Core. For diehard reformers, the lack of “rigorous standards” is res ipsa loquitur –the culpability is such that one can disregard the other possible contributing factors that result in student remediation.

The argument is both political and simplistic. It is political because time and again the facts about college remediation are distorted or framed to cause maximum alarm. It is simplistic because it fails to acknowledge the complexity of the problem, seeing college remediation solely as a function of inadequate high school preparation.

Let’s begin with how reformers distort the facts. Here is one example. According to Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the following in Massachusetts earlier this year:

 “The secretary [Duncan] offered this sobering statistic to underscore his point: “Forty percent of your high-school graduates are taking remedial classes when they go to four-year universities. That’s a staggering number… Four in 10 of your high school graduates aren’t ready for college.”

 Yet, according to the state of Massachusetts, 22 percent of students in four-year, public state universities take remedial courses, and that does not include the 30 percent of graduates who attend private, four-year colleges that traditionally have lower remediation rates. A full discussion of Duncan’s outlandish claim can be found here.

Duncan is not alone. During a discussion of the Common Core on NPR, Achieve President Michael Cohen echoed the 40 percent remediation rate, claiming it to be a national figure for all college-going students. The “40 percent” figure also appeared in an article in the Huffington Post — one that oddly does not list an author. That article attributes the figure to an organization called Complete College America, which lists as its first solution to decrease remediation the adoption and implementation of the Common Core. Complete College America is a non-profit think tank that appears to be closely aligned with the National Governors Association (NGA), one of the lead organizations in the Core’s development.

On Page 8 of this NGA document, the following claim is made:

…approximately 40 percent of all students and 61 percent of students who begin in community colleges enroll in a remedial education course at a cost to states of $1 billion a year.

 Really? The U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics report (NCES) puts the latest figure of the overall remediation rate for first-year college students at 20 percent.

So where did Complete College America get its information?  According to a footnote in the report with its solutions to decreasing remediation, the information came from a 2011 report by another think tank, called The Alliance for Excellent Education, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the other usual reform think tank donors. The first page of the 2011 report says: “Roughly one out of every three students entering postsecondary education will have to take at least one remedial course.”  They are likely not “roughing down” so let’s read that as slightly below 33 percent.

Now here is what they say about the college remediation rate on Page 3 of the very same report:

 Nationwide, about 40 percent of all first-year students will need remedial education before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses.

 Mama mia, roll out the National Guard! In the time that it took the authors to write two pages, the college remediation rate jumped over 7 percent. And where does this think tank get its figures? They come from their own “powerstats” study using 2008 NCES data on post-secondary student aid. Why didn’t they just use the remediation rates that NCES provides?

In summary, this is what appears to have occurred. One think tank created the 40 percent remediation rate with a “powerstats” program that was so powerful it raised the remediation rate from less than 33 percent to 40 percent in a few minutes. The 40 percent then made its way into another think tank’s report, which was picked up by a nameless author who posted it on the Huffington Post.

A few years later, in his zeal for supporting the expansion of charter schools in Boston, Duncan further inflates the rate by telling the people of Massachusetts that 40 percent of their graduates need remediation when they attend four-year universities. These fabrications and misrepresentations of facts occur, in my opinion, because there are so many  “think tanks” that churn out facts that are never checked. They are published in glossy brochures designed to produce alarm. If there were not crises, why would their donors continue to support them?

Here is another example. In 2010, the New York State Education Department under then Commissioner David Steiner did a presentation on remediation in New York. You can find it here.   The report was well done. It defined who was included (first-time students), as well as other relevant information such as student ages, SAT scores and grade point averages. Slide Number 5 presents the overview on a 100-point vertical axis and gives precise values for the latest year  at that time, 2007.

Now look at the 2013 college remediation report under the present commissioner, John B. King. Slide 3 presents the overview. The vertical axis is now 60 points, which makes the rates appear higher than they are, and no precise values are given. In fact, the 2007 rate for community colleges, which we know was 44 percent from Steiner’s slides, appears to be 48 percent on the recent report. All of the detail and nuance are gone. The slide is now couched in others that promote the Regents reform agenda and standardized testing.

Do not misunderstand. The rate of remediation, particularly in our community colleges, is a serious concern. We are experiencing the tension between the generous impulse to allow anyone (including those who do not have a high school diploma) to attend college, and their preparedness in the eyes of the colleges. Taxpayers bear much of the cost. Ironically, those remediation rates have always been high, however now they are perceived as a “crisis.”

In addition, we do not have common agreement regarding whom we should include in the data, how we decide who needs remediation, and what courses we should include when we report remediation numbers.

Remediation is complicated, and I will blog more about it this summer. No matter how serious a problem it may be, however, it is wrong to inflate remediation numbers and then use them to justify everything from charter schools to the Common Core. Every time we pose simplistic solutions, we avoid deeply engaging in resolving problems that require a multiplicity of efforts and shared responsibility. Every time we make the data up or distort it, we demean the importance of what we hope to accomplish.

I used to shake my head when contemplating some of the corporate reform nonsense and say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I don’t say that anymore, for I have learned that in the layer upon layer of reform think tanks, making it up is common practice.

[1] I repeatedly asked Lehigh to correct the facts. Although he assured me he would, the correction never occurred despite the evidence.

UPDATE: Achieve President Michael Cohen responds to Burris:

Valerie Strauss’ recent posting of Carol Burris’ piece in, “How college remediation rates are distorted — and why” is another example of a Common Core critic who would rather use logical fallacies to defend the status quo than confront real issues.

There are serious problems in the American system of education.  No Common Core supporter I know believes or has stated that the standards are the silver bullet to fix the problems, as Burris simplistically implies.  We do know, however, that the skills and knowledge gap between what old state standards required and what employers and postsecondary institutions need was very much a part of the problem.  The Common Core State Standards were developed to close that gap.

It is a fact that year after year, colleges, both two-year and four-year, find themselves with far too many students who are unable to enter into entry-level, credit-bearing courses.  Yet Dr. Burris wants to split hairs over the exact percentage.  Nothing could be less helpful.

There is a range, depending on how a state defines remediation, of the precise percentage of students that need it.  Don’t take my word for it.  Here is what a small sample of states report:

Of Indiana’s 2012 high school graduates, 28 percent of the 33,712 who enrolled in Indiana Public Colleges required remediation in at least one subject.

Of the 22,413 2012 high school graduates who matriculated into college in Colorado, 8,299 students (37 percent) were not college ready and required at least one remedial course.

Of the 51,627 first-time Ohio high school graduates going directly to a University System of Ohio College, 40 percent had to take developmental math or English.

The average statewide remedial rate of recent high school graduates remained at 51 percent in 2012; remedial rates are even higher for Native American students (59 percent), Hispanic students (68 percent), and low-income students (79 percent).  For students matriculating into a two-year college, the average rate is 57 percent.

Currently, approximately one of every two traditional age, first‐time, full‐time matriculated students at SUNY’s community colleges is reported to be taking a remedial course.ibbling over how many thousands of students need remediation doesn’t help the thousands of students who need it.  Those students care about the fact that remediation will cost them money, that they won’t get credit, and that this extra course time means they are less likely as better prepared peers to eventually earn a degree.

Until there is a common definition of remediation or a common formula to calculate a national percentage on remediation, there will continue to be people who use a range of rates.  The fact that there is a range, however, won’t keep taxpayers from rightly caring about any amount of their tax dollars going to a K-12 system that produces students who are unprepared to succeed in college and career and to postsecondary institutions that have to get them up to speed.

So, when Burris says, “…remediation rates have always been high, however now they are perceived as a ‘crisis,’” she is partially right.  But it’s not a “perceived” crisis.  It’s real – real for educators, real for employers, and real for the thousands of students described above.

Second Update: Carol Burris responds to Michael Cohen

Achieve President Michael Cohen has been saying that the national college remediation rate is 40 percent.  In addition to the link provided in the post above, Mr. Cohen makes the same claim here during his presentation about PARCC which, like the Common Core, is an initiative led, in great part, by Achieve.  In his response to my blog,  Mr. Cohen accuses me of “quibbling” about the rate.  This is not a mere “you say potato I say patawto” matter.  Despite his claim, a national figure from the National Center of Educational Statistics does exist and it is 20 percent.  Is it exactly correct?  I do not know.  But I trust NCES more than those who use remediation rates to sell the Common Core.

Mr. Cohen cherry picks links of different rates in different states in his response. He chooses the community college rate for New York, which is 50 percent, while ignoring the rate for all public colleges in New York (including community colleges) which is about 24 percent–close to NCES’ figure of 20 percent and the Massachusetts figure of 22 percent. These numbers are a far cry from Mr. Cohen’s 40 percent.

As I noted in the post, remediation rates are complicated. I do not write to ignore problems but rather to ensure we find the right solutions. If Mr. Cohen learned  more about the professional work that I have done, he would find that I am hardly a defender of the status quo. Mr. Cohen and I both believe that we must do a better job providing students with a more challenging education. Like Mr. Cohen, I used to believe that national standards were a solution, but after living through the Common Core, I am no longer a believer. And when Common Core supporters are careless when making their case, that only further undermines my trust in Common Core reform.