High school graduates throw their hats in the air in 2012. (AP Photo/The Sentinel, Dennis R.J. Geppert)

Award-winning Principal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York has written here and here about how college remediation rates are often hyped. In in the following post she expands her examination by looking at the purpose and efficacy of the remedial model. Burris has been exposing the problems with New York’s disastrous 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

I was standing on line at a local sandwich shop, when the young man behind me got my attention. He had graduated a few years ago from my high school, and he was anxious to share good news.

He beamed as he told me how well he was doing at Hofstra University. He was studying what he loved, and doing very well. He did not start out at Hofstra, however. Tom began at a local community college and then transferred to the four-year university.

I remember him as a great kid who struggled in math due to his learning disability. He was able to get through geometry, but math beyond that was too tough. After he told me about his success at Hofstra, I asked him how he did at the local community college where he began.

The young man said that after taking a test with, as he described it, “math I had not seen in years”, he was placed in two remedial courses. He got through them, and his family luckily did not mind spending tuition on classes for which he would get no credit. In English, he went right into a college level course.

I asked him if he felt more prepared for college math after having remediation. He laughed and described the credit0bearing course as “really not math at all…it was easier than high school.” Why this school insisted that he take two, non-credit bearing courses, only to then have him take a course he could have successfully completed without remediation, is something that neither he nor I understand.

There is more to the college remediation story than just the inflated remediation rates that are being used to hawk the Common Core State Standards. If we want to reduce remediation, especially in our open-enrollment colleges, we must question the purpose and efficacy of the remedial model itself.

Tom’s experience is apparently commonplace. Students are far more likely to be placed in remedial math than in remedial English. A study of more than 250,000 students at 57 open-enrollment community colleges found that 59 percent of entering students were recommended for remedial math, while 33 percent were recommended for remedial reading or writing.

So, how do community colleges decide who needs remediation and in which course? Although taking the SAT or ACT is rarely required for two-year colleges, very competitive SAT scores are often needed to get out of remediation testing.   To escape the remediation placement test at Long Island’s Nassau Community College, for example, students need a 550 in math, 550 in reading and a 540 in writing. That is a total score of 1640. To put that score in perspective, only 34 percent of all college bound seniors score that high.   The College Board says that if students have a composite score of 1550, they are college ready. The inappropriately high cut scores at Nassau virtually guarantee that nearly all incoming students will be obligated to take at least one placement test.

Then there are the placement tests themselves. There are two that dominate the market—ACCUPLACER, a product of the College Board and COMPASS, produced by the ACT. They are short, computer adaptive tests that apparently are not very accurate.

According to studies cited by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, ACCUPLACER severely misplaces 33 percent of all students, and COMPASS severely misplaces 27 percent, either by putting students into courses that are too hard, or in courses that are too easy. Two studies found that student GPAs were a far more accurate predictor—reducing severe placement errors by about half. Another study of remediation found that nearly 25 percent (math) and over 33 percent (English) of remedial course placements in one urban system were “severe under-placements” due to the COMPASS test. In short, lots of kids get placed into remediation who really do not need it.

How helpful are traditional remedial courses? Again, the Community College Research Center sheds light. Studies of the effects of remediation yield results that are mixed or negative. Many students enrolled in these remedial courses never complete the courses, and those who do, do not necessarily benefit.

What happens to weaker students who simply skip remediation? The research center found that students who ignored remedial placement had a slightly lower success rate than those who did not need remediation. But students who were referred for remediation but skipped it, had a “substantially higher” rate of success than those who took remedial courses. In other words, remediation is no remedy.

The research center recommends a different model. Acceleration with support not only reduces remedial time and expense, it also has better results. A center study, which can be found here, says:

“To ameliorate acceleration’s potential negative effects on pass rates within college-level courses, we recommend that colleges implement what could be called “supported acceleration”: compressing or shortening the developmental sequence while providing supports that help students succeed in that more rigorous environment.”

So, what should we ask, based on what we know?

  • Because there is nearly twice as much remediation in math as there is in English, is the higher rate the result, in part, of placement tests not aligned with high school math? Are there ways to develop pathways for students that are relevant to their major and that do not require college algebra?
  • Do we need really ACCUPLACER and COMPASS when grade point averages are a better predictor of achievement, especially given the rates of unneeded remediation that result from these tests?
  • If traditional remediation is no remedy as the research suggests, why aren’t more colleges using the ‘acceleration with support’ model that has better success? If students who “skip” remediation have better outcomes than those who do not, should colleges place more students in credit bearing courses, and provide strong support?

I believe we could cut remediation rates substantially and possibly even raise completion rates based on the research associated with the above. There are, of course, vested interests aligned with the present model. The College Board and ACT must receive considerable revenue from their placement tests. Then there are the open-enrollment colleges themselves; non-credit bearing courses are revenue generators and job producers for faculty.

This is not to disregard the responsibility of high schools. We must give all students a more challenging curriculum that better prepares them for post-secondary education. Anyone who knows my work as a high school principal knows I am a firm believer in a challenging education for all and hardly a supporter of the status quo. I am opposed to the Common Core not because I am against the goal of college readiness, but because it is a test-driven model with standards that are ill-informed and poorly designed. The Common Core was created by those outside K-12 education, and it dramatically reduces local, democratic control of schools. In addition, implementation, thanks to Race to the Top, has been a disaster. In short, the Common Core will not accomplish the important job of providing a better, enriched education for all.

No matter how one feels about the Common Core, however, no set of standards will make more than a small dent in the remediation problem. The solution lies in creating a new vision and mission for our open-enrollment public colleges. We cannot have it both ways. It is unfair to open the door and then put up a wall.

As a public high school principal, I willingly accept every child who comes through our door—including those with interrupted education, learning disabilities, frequent school transfers, drug problems and a host of other educational, social and emotional issues. As hard as we try, we cannot get each child to perfect preparation for college, nor is it possible for every child to be perfectly prepared for high school.

The Common Core will not cure my former student’s math issues. Many of our students need constant monitoring, support, nudging and counseling to get them over the high school graduation finish line. Their problems and needs do not disappear when they leave us and go to college.

If we are serious about reducing remediation rates in open-enrollment colleges, then we need to re-think remediation, expand the purpose and vision of open-enrollment institutions, and then give those schools the funding they need to give struggling students support.