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Complete College America on Wednesday reiterated its urgent call for reforming remedial education, arguing that incremental fixes won’t be enough.

“Recent research is making clear that if our goal is for students to enter and move through programs of study that lead to completion of a credential, remedial education as it is currently practiced simply cannot get us there,” the group said in a statement, which was jointly written with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, the Education Commission of the States and Jobs for the Future.

Few people would contest Complete College America’s central assumption that the remedial (or developmental) track too often is ineffective. As the group, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, noted in the statement, only one-quarter of community college students who take a remedial course graduate within eight years.

Remediation is typically a sequence of semester-long courses in mathematics and English that students must complete before they can get into college-level, gateway courses. Remedial courses also are not usually credit-bearing. They can be a costly and discouraging stumbling block for students.

Studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College have also found that popular placement tests may be consigning students to remediation who could have succeeded in credit-bearing courses.

“The placement tests are flawed and limited,” said Richard Kazis, a senior vice president of Jobs for the Future, in a conference call with reporters. (The College Board, which administers one of those placement tests, has previously responded to criticism about it.)

Complete College America’s statement included seven principles (see box) for creating a “fundamentally new approach,” which it hopes will be used by both institutions and state policymakers. The primary groups representing the two-year sector, including Achieving the Dream and the American Association of Community Colleges, did not sign the statement.

Core Principles

1. Completion of a set of gateway courses for a program of study is a critical measure of success toward college completion.
2. The content in required gateway courses should align with a student’s academic program of study -- particularly in math.
3. Enrollment in a gateway college-level course should be the default placement for many more students.
4. Additional academic support should be integrated with gateway college-level course content -- as a co-requisite, not a prerequisite.
5. Students who are significantly underprepared for college-level academic work need accelerated routes into programs of study.
6. Multiple measures should be used to provide guidance in the placement of students in gateway courses and programs of study.
7. Students should enter a meta-major when they enroll in college and start a program of study in their first year, in order to maximize their prospects of earning a college degree.

Many of the reforms proposed by Complete College America enjoy broad support, including the use of multiple measures to assess which students need remediation. But some can be controversial, like making gateway, credit-bearing courses the “default placement” for students. The group has called for more students to skip remediation and get extra support -- such as tutoring, computer labs, peer instruction and more class time -- in credit-bearing courses.

A handful of critics, some quietly, have said that push can go too far, with recently passed statewide legislation in Connecticut that limited remediation to one course being particularly controversial. Critics also say cash-strapped community colleges lack the money to add the kind of supports needed to help students with remedial needs succeed in credit-bearing courses.

“More ways to have students bypass remediation” makes good sense, said Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education. But he said advocating for “everybody to skip remediation entirely, I think that’s a bad idea.”

In its statement, the group said colleges should “change the question they ask during the placement process from why should a student be placed in a gateway course to why shouldn’t they?” By making that shift, colleges will make sure students are enrolled in the right course to enable them to succeed, according to the statement.

Stan Jones, Complete College America’s president, said that additional resources for students might take some initial funding, but that colleges would recoup that investment by having better retention and graduation rates.

The groups said the statement should help guide “rapid and creative developments in the alignment of high school and college standards, new college readiness assessments and emerging instructional strategies and technologies that will further improve how we meet the needs of students who are not fully prepared for postsecondary education.”

Colleges, statewide systems and policy makers are already working on many of the ideas in the statement, according to leaders of the four groups.

For example, community colleges in Texas have begun a broad retooling of remedial math programs. And Jones pointed to remedial reforms by Austin Peay State University and the Community College of Baltimore County as potential examples for other institutions.

But “fundamental, structural change” requires the involvement of governors and state legislatures, said Uri Treisman, the Dana Center’s director.

“It’s time to do this work at scale,” Treisman said, adding that “it’s time for policy makers to put in place the enabling conditions.”

(Note: This article has been updated from a previous version to clarify that all four groups jointly wrote the statement.)

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