Rethinking remediation


A recent study by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education indicated that over a quarter of students at Minnesota colleges and universities have been placed in a remedial course – a class for which they pay but do not receive college credit. At first glance, this appears to be evidence of public schools’ failure. But the story is not that simple.

Often, students are misplaced into or out of remedial courses because there are few agreed upon assessments of college readiness, particularly for specific subjects. The placement tests for remedial courses do not adequately match what is covered in college classes and thus do not effectively predict how successful a student will be. A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students are misplaced in around one fourth of the cases in math and one third in reading.

For many degrees, the math and reading required to graduate is significantly easier or simply different than what is taught in high school. The National Center on Education and Economy found that for community colleges, the math required in most disciplines is not what is taught in high school or covered on placement exams. For a variety of technical degrees, only a middle school level of algebra is needed, and many students merely need a brush up.

Remedial courses produce the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than preparing students to thrive in future coursework, they discourage success by forcing students to pay more and lengthen their time in school. Less than half of students complete remedial reading sequences, and only about a third complete the mathematics sequences.

Of course, high schools could always do more to improve student achievement. But course preparedness is a problem that needs to be primarily addressed by the colleges and universities. Minnesota’s higher education institutions must reform how remedial courses are conceived and implemented. Instead of using these classes as strict prerequisites for regular coursework, they should support students during their normal course progression. Students should be placed in standard, credit-bearing courses, and those who struggle should be concurrently or additionally enrolled in remedial/review classes. This is a better model, using actual college courses as the benchmark for college readiness. It encourages rather than discourages students to succeed.

Reform will be a tough sell. But if colleges and universities are interested in maximizing student achievement, they should inspire students rather than erecting barriers to their success. Remedial course enrollment data strongly suggest that its past time to improve placement evaluation.