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Remedial courses usually fail to prepare students for college-level work, concludes a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Remediation does not develop students’ skills sufficiently to increase their rates of college success,” concludes Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who wrote the paper with graduate student Olga Rodriguez.

Still, the remedial track may have other uses: At open-access colleges, the remedial track can be a low-cost way of sorting unprepared students out of crowded college-level courses, the paper suggests:

. . . an unadvertised but implicit function of remedial assignment may be to signal students about their likelihood of college completion; it may be efficient to both the student and the institution to realize this and adjust their investments sooner rather than later.

Moreover, regardless of its effectiveness in remediating skill deficiencies, remediation may still serve as an expedient form of student tracking. Even if remediated students never make it to college-level coursework, students in both remedial and college-level courses may learn more during their three semesters of attendance (the average, in our sample) than if they were all grouped in already-crowded college courses.

The study looked at first-time, degree-seeking students at six urban community colleges: Of those required to take the placement test, 90 percent required remediation in one or more subjects.

Remedial placement didn’t discourage students, the study found. While most quit college without earning a credential, so did students who started at the college level.

“Assignment to remediation has little influence, either positive or negative, on degree completion, degree/transfer, persistence, dropout or semesters enrolled,” the study found.

About 10 percent of community college classes are developmental, averaging $3,200 per incoming student or nearly $4 billion annually nationwide.

An estimated 25 percent of students placed in remedial math and up to 70 percent in remedial English would have earned a B or better in the entry-level credit-bearing course, the researchers estimated. However, few would have earned a credential.

If remediation is about keeping students out of college courses, courses should be redesigned , the researchers suggest.

Many remedial courses are designed explicitly to prepare students for college-level coursework in the relevant subject, which our analysis suggests they may never take. . . . A question for future research is what type of remedial curriculum is most valuable for students who may not continue beyond the course.

If the average student lasts only three semesters, maybe colleges should design three-semester-or-less job training programs that incorporate the reading, writing and math skills students will need in the workplace.

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