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Latasha Gandy thought she was the ideal high school student.

Attending Arlington Senior High School in St. Paul, Minn., she kept her head in her books and did her homework. “I was that student everybody wanted to multiply,” she said.

Her mother was elated with Arlington, a brand new school with the latest technology, web training, access to Apple computers and — best of all — the promise that it would prepare every student for college. Gandy’s parents hadn’t gone to college.

Gandy was in the honors program and graduated with a GPA of 4.2 out of 5.

But when she went to enroll at her local community college, a counselor said she had to take a placement test. When the results came back, Gandy was told she needed remedial classes.

“My first question was, ‘What are those?’” she recalled, the surprise still evident in her voice. “And they told me they were basically material to catch me up to be ready to be in college. And I remember asking, ‘How is that possible that I’m not ready for college when I graduated with a 4.2 GPA?’”

It was a huge blow. Financially, because remedial classes, also known as developmental classes, cost money but don’t count as credit toward a degree. And emotionally, because she started to wonder if she really belonged in college at all.

“I went into this state of, ‘Black people don’t go to college,’” Gandy said. “That’s something that I heard very often in my childhood. Not in my home, but I heard it in my neighborhood. I heard it from older adults that were around me.”

Gandy had run into the nation’s increasingly cumbersome problem with developmental education, a system that is intended to give students a better shot at succeeding in college but which, according to mounting evidence, is costing students time and money and actually preventing some of them from getting degrees.

More than four in 10 college students end up in developmental math and English classes at an annual cost of approximately $7 billion, and many of them have a worse chance of eventually graduating than if they went straight into college-level classes. Students of all races and income levels end up in developmental classes, but students of color like Gandy are significantly more likely than white students to end up in remediation. Low-income students also are more likely to be assigned to developmental classes.

Listen to find out more about whether remedial classes are catching students up for college, or holding them back from even getting started.

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  1. Such young people are held back by their lack of preparation in high school, and by the completely unreliable grading standards by which too many are fooled into thinking they are well prepared, only to discover a nasty surprise later, as happened with Miss Gandy. The reasons for the unreliable grading are complex, but are in general a manifestation of the availability bias that Daniel Kahneman, among others, has usefully noted. At Locke High School in Watts, a Los Angeles ghetto in which I taught for seven years, most of the teachers were inexperienced, and many, sent by Teach For America, were not even professionally trained; they regularly gave As to work that would struggle to earn a C in Irvine, where I live, a much better educated community with professionally trained, experienced teachers.

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