Know a Problem to Fix It

July 2, 2014

Remedial education is getting plenty of attention from state lawmakers. Yet there is little consistency in how states track students’ college preparedness and subsequent progress through remedial coursework.

That’s the central finding of a new report from the Education Commission of the States. The education policy think tank also released a companion report today that takes a first crack at creating a national “framework” for how to measure and report on remediation.

Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said it’s clear that colleges must improve remedial education success rates. And Bailey said perhaps more consistent reporting can help spur those efforts.

“If better measures will enhance our efforts to make those improvements and encourage colleges and high schools to work together to strengthen student skills and make sure that they are well established in college, then they make sense,” he said.

In December of last year the commission brought together education officials, lawmakers and policy experts to discuss remedial reporting practices in the states. They found “chaos,” which is described in the resulting report.

Thirty states issue an annual report on remedial education, such as the number of students who place into developmental English or mathematics classes. Others, including Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Vermont, do not appear to report remedial data.

Even among states that produce annual reports, there was a dearth of consistent reporting. For example, only 13 states sent information back to K-12 systems about their graduates’ remedial needs. And just 12 tracked remedial students’ progress in college-level courses.

“Too many students now arrive at college ill-prepared for college level work,” Colorado’s Lt. Joe Garcia, who helped lead the commission’s work on the two reports, said in a written statement. “Knowing who they are, where they came from and how many are in need of remedial courses is step one to fixing this problem."

Multiple Measures

For the second report, Garcia and others on a steering committee tasked the commission with putting together a panel of experts to design remedial reporting standards that every state can use. They cautioned against “blunt” measures of comparison, and called for the use of multiple college readiness indicators.

That request reflects recent research, chiefly from Bailey’s center, which has criticized colleges’ reliance on placement tests from the College Board and ACT. Those assessments place students into remediation who might be able to succeed in college level courses, the research found. And critics say community colleges rely too heavily on the high-stakes tests.

ECS’s new “common framework for remedial reporting” requires the use of a wide range of mandatory variables for determining college readiness and tracking student progress in remediation. They include:

  • High school grade point average
  • Score on a national test
  • Credit hours completed
  • Course information and grades in both remedial and credit-bearing English and mathematics
  • Students' demographic information

This approach to reporting focuses attention on academic progress and student outcomes, the report said.

“The framework is not intended to rank or grade state performance,” it said. “But rather to allow states to view the effectiveness of their policies in terms of student performance and view the comparable information across states.”

Bailey said he supports the push to use multiple measures to determine college readiness.

“I like the many aspects that they are considering,” he said, “although of course that could generate many numbers.”

The two reports argue that the K-12 Common Core State Standards and assessments based on them will lead to “ways to measure college readiness across most states.”

But given the loud backlash to the Common Core, that prediction might prove to be optimistic.

Furthermore, Bailey cautioned against the use of a “sharp line” for determining college readiness. A broader set of metrics than a single assessment is an improvement, he said. But colleges should be given some flexibility in placement.

One reason is that students’ goals can affect their odds of success in college-bearing course. For example, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Quantway and Statway math tracks have shown that students who are not headed into STEM fields can benefit from a heavier mix of statistics and less college-level algebra.

The Lumina Foundation funded the ECS reports. Officials with the commission said states can improve their education systems from learning from each other. They hope the report and new standards begin a “national dialogue on how states can share information about student’s remediation needs.” 

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