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Researchers are studying rapid changes in remedial education, from the elimination of placement exams to making remedial classes optional. Credit: Meredith Kolodner

Community colleges and nonselective universities that enroll everyone are at a crossroads. Helping less-prepared students make the jump to college-level work is a big part of their mission. In recent history, roughly half of first-year college students have been sent to remedial classes in math, English or both, according a 2016 Center for American Progress report. At the same time, remedial classes have been a giant bottleneck for students in getting their college degrees. For some, remedial requirements are an expensive waste of time that they don’t need. For others, they become a trap: Unable to progress to college-credit courses, many get discouraged and drop out, often with debt.

Policymakers have been trying to fix the system. Florida made remedial classes optional in 2014, letting students decide for themselves whether to take them. California took the bold step of ending required remedial classes in its community college system in 2018, allowing most students who had passed their high school classes to start with college-credit classes. North Carolina, Virginia and Minnesota have moved forward with big changes too. (A November 2019 report from the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) surveys many of the changes in remedial classes around the nation.)

Meanwhile, researchers are scrambling to keep up with the fast pace of policy change. “A lot of these ideas were thrown out there by the research world, and we need to go in and evaluate what has happened,” said Federick Ngo, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is a national expert in community college students and remedial education. “It’s a ‘who knows what’s going to happen’ kind of time.”

There are things we do know. In the places that are sending more students directly to college courses, bypassing remedial education, pass rates have fallen a bit, by a few percentage points, but not a lot. Roughly speaking, 60 percent of California college students are still passing introductory college math and English classes, according to an October 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

But with 47,000 students able to skip remedial English and 25,000 students able to skip remedial math between 2015 and 2018, as California colleges began implementing the reforms that became mandatory in 2019, tens of thousands more students are getting college credits straightaway. A September 2019 analysis of early adopters of California’s new policy found that nearly 19,000 more students passed an introductory college English course in the fall of 2018 than in the fall of 2017. In math, 5,000 more students succeeded in passing a college class.

Related: How to help students avoid the remedial ed trap

Dan Cullinan, a research associate at MDRC, a nonprofit research organization, says he is seeing the same trend in Minnesota and Wisconsin, with more students going straight into college classes and no big drop in pass rates.

One way that colleges are moving more students to college-credit courses is by not making students take placement tests when they first arrive on campus. Florida eliminated placement tests for most students once it made remedial classes optional.

But a new Florida study published in November 2019 suggests that not all placement tests should be scrapped. Researchers calculated that the state would have maximized the number of students passing college-level courses and minimized the number of students failing these courses if colleges had simply lowered the threshold score required on the placement tests. But using high school grades alone as a guide for who should proceed to college classes and who should take remedial classes led to lower pass rates and higher failure rates.

“It is still a good idea to give students the placement test,” said Christine Mokher, a Florida State University associate professor of education and a co-author of the study. “Advisers talked about how they had a really hard time knowing how to advise students on which course to take. It would be useful to inform placement decisions. Students should be able to use that information.”

Previous research dating back to 2014 has found that high school grades were a better guide for who should take remedial classes than national placement tests, such as Accuplacer and Compass. Mokher said she arrived at a different conclusion because Florida used its own homemade exam, where Florida educators wrote the questions. Those questions were closely aligned with the actual course material taught at the state’s 28 community colleges, Mokher explained.

Maybe custom-made tests could be helpful elsewhere, too. But the Florida study highlights the way that policy is moving very fast before researchers can confirm theories and replicate results. In Florida, it’s possible that the elimination of placement tests hasn’t been to the benefit of students.

Researchers who specialize in remedial education are convening in New York City for a conference on Nov. 21 and 22, 2019 hosted by the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) at Teachers College, Columbia University, to discuss policy changes and next steps for research. (The Hechinger Report is an independent news organization based at Teachers College.). 

Beyond getting more college students to take college-credit classes quicker, a big issue researchers are wrestling with is what to do about the 40 percent of students who fail these college-level classes. Researchers are studying how well companion corequisite courses and tutoring can help get these struggling students up to speed.  And it remains to be seen whether the additional students who are succeeding in first-year college classes will ultimately persist and succeed in getting their college diplomas.

This story about remedial classes in college was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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