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Even as policymakers struggle to reform remedial-education requirements blamed for derailing the aspirations of countless community-college students, two new studies suggest that many of those students would do fine without them.

The studies, both by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that as many as a third of students sidetracked into remedial classes because of their scores on standardized tests would have earned a B or better if they had simply proceeded directly to college-level courses.

Three out of five of all entering community-college students are required to take remedial classes in math and other subjects, spending time and tuition money reviewing material they should have learned in middle school or high school, yet earning no credit from these classes toward their degrees.

More than 75 percent never graduate—in many cases, the researchers say, because they drop out from boredom and frustration. Providing remedial education also costs community colleges an estimated $2.5 billion a year.

Most rely on two principal standardized tests, called COMPASS and ACCUPLACER, to measure students’ college readiness. The researchers said their findings show those test-scores should not be the only trigger for diverting students into remedial courses.

They said high-school grade-point averages were better gauges of preparedness for college-level work and would reduce the number of students assigned to remedial courses by somewhere between 15 and 50 percent.

Researchers arrived at these conclusions by examining the performance of 19,000 students entering a large urban community college and a state community-college system over several years. They declined to name the school or state, but said the results were convincing enough to apply to all community colleges.

“This is not a few students,” said Clive Belfield, one of the researchers. “This is more than half who will take at least one of these courses. Most don’t get through it, and even if they do get through it, they really did not need to be there.”

Some community colleges already use other means to determine if a student needs remedial work. Montgomery College in Maryland, for example, accepts certain minimum scores on the SAT, ACT or AP tests as proof that students there can handle college-level math and English, and students can appeal their ACCUPLACER scores.

Montgomery College also offers the ACCUPLACER test to juniors at 13 Montgomery County public high schools, helping them to pinpoint what they still need to learn.

Still, the college found that 53 percent of recent high-school graduates who enrolled there in 2010 were not prepared for college-level math.

Last November, Virginia replaced the COMPASS test altogether as a measure of math ability with the Virginia Placement Test, which narrows down specific areas in which a student still needs work—fractions, for example—that can be addressed in just a few weeks, rather than a whole semester.

“A student used to have to take an entire algebra course and would know the first month or month and a half of material, so they would get bored,” said Terese Ryerse Overton, developmental math manager at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College. “And by the time they got to the stuff they actually didn’t know, they weren’t paying as much attention as they should have.”

Community colleges spend so much time trying to fix the remedial-education process, Overton said, because “it’s a bottleneck for students, and impairing them, and we want them to get through, and to get through as quickly as they can.”

This story appeared on the College Inc. blog of The Washington Post on February 28, 2012. Further reproduction is not allowed.

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