How To Fix America's College Remediation Issue

More than half of community college freshmen are told they aren't ready for college-level work.

Math teacher Thora Broyles, standing, helps students in a remedial math class Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012, at Missouri State University-West Plains in West Plains, Mo. At the two-year school in south-central Missouri, fully 75 percent of first-year students take at least one remedial class, well above the national average of 50 percent at community colleges and 20 percent at four-year schools. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Math teacher Thora Broyles helps students in a remedial math class Aug. 28, 2012, at Missouri State University-West Plains. At the two-year school, fully 75 percent of first-year students take at least one remedial class.

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More students than ever are graduating from high school, but a significant portion are told they aren't ready for college-level studies.

Remedial education at the college level is by no means a new issue, but it's one that both K-12 and higher education leaders are still working to solve. Part of the problem comes from the fact that many states can't accurately pinpoint exactly how many students need remediation, and few states report information about those students back to elementary, middle and high schools, according to a new report from the Education Commission of the States.

"That's really, once you get right down to it, what the process of reporting is all about," says Matt Gianneschi, vice president of policy and programs for the commission. "It's not about shame, it's not about blame. It's about trying to find a better way to make sure the next generation of students are successful in getting ready for making that transition to college."

[READ: High School Graduates Still Struggle With College Readiness]

Nationwide, about 20 percent of freshmen entering four-year colleges are placed into remedial English and mathematics courses. At community colleges, that number jumps to about 60 percent. Doing so is an expense for both the students and the universities because remedial courses do not count for college credit. One study from the National Bureau for Economic Research found the annual cost of remedial education is about $7 billion dollars.

Overall, the Education Commission of States report found 30 states produce annual reports on remediation rates, and just 13 provide feedback to high schools about their graduates' outcomes. But there's a divide between states in how they measure remediation rates. Some count the number of students who have tested as needing remediation, while others count the number of students who actually enroll in remedial courses.

Both of those methods, while they may sound logical, are not entirely accurate. The first method includes students who may not have enrolled in the courses. The second might not capture students who need remediation but failed to enroll in remedial courses, for whatever reason – they avoid it, they decide to take a different path, or drop out of college altogether. And when states use the net sum of both measures – as some, such as Colorado and Connecticut, have begun to do – it more accurately captures need, but typically comes with an increase in remedial rates because the states had been underreporting before, Gianneschi says.

There are several reasons why students end up in such a situation, but a fair amount of finger-pointing goes on between secondary and postsecondary sectors, said Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, during a panel discussion Wednesday.

[SEE ALSO: Free Community College Not a New Idea]

"When you look at the notion of remediation ... it is in large measure about how well we prepared students in the K-12 sector," Chester said. "It's also a large measure about the efficacy of those programs because the students who show up ... fail at a very high rate."

In fact, they're less likely to stay on track to receive a degree of any kind in a timely manner, research has shown. Fewer than 10 percent graduate from community college within three years, and just more than one-third complete a bachelor's degree within six years.

Perhaps part of the reason for such a high remediation rate stems from the fact that standardized tests commonly used for placement in those courses – such as the SAT and ACT – have not closely aligned with state standards or with a strong predictor of college success, Gianneschi says. Still, the Education Commission of States recommends both states and colleges use multiple measures for remediation placement, including high school GPA, class rank and course rigor.

"The K-12 tests, they may as well have been in Latin," Gianneschi says. "It didn't matter. In the postsecondary world, we didn't have any utility for those. We couldn't use the ninth grade performance on whatever the state assessment was, because it had not relationship to college readiness. But now it will."

Gianneschi says as more states implement the Common Core State Standards and assessments, and as the SAT and ACT shift to reflect those standards more directly, colleges will be able to not just assess a student's performance at one point in time, but also their entire academic trajectory.

[RELATED: Common Core Could Help With Remediation, College Leaders Say]

"My dream would be that our colleges and universities are able to partner with K-12 schools very early on ... so it's not this rigid transition that happens at the point of departure from a K-12 environment, but it's actually a relationship that's developed very early on," he says.

But Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, says the issue of college readiness and remediation runs much deeper than a misalignment of expectations.

In May 2013, his group released a study two-and-a-half years in the making that analyzed the textbooks and syllabi for first-year community college English and math courses – the bar he says is set for college readiness. The researchers also interviewed instructors and looked at student grades and assignments. They found the reading and math expectations for community college freshmen are more aligned with high school and middle school standards compared to four-year colleges and universities.

"The actual standards for being college and work ready ... are very, very low – astonishingly low," Tucker says. "And a very large fraction of American high school graduates can't meet them."

Tucker says he believes part of the reason may come from a decline in academic expectations, coupled with well-documented grade inflation over time. While other countries have been ratcheting up their standards, the U.S. has coasted. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called America's performance on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, "a picture of educational stagnation."

[MORE: 1 in 10 Community College Transfers Lose Nearly All Course Credits]

Meanwhile, the United States on average has among the highest per-student spending at the K-12 level than most other developed countries, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yet it ranks 26th in math and 17th in reading among other OECD countries.

"What could be more wasteful than that?" Tucker says. "The levels of remediation in the U.S. are intolerable. Our problem is we've been tolerating them. ... We shouldn't have to fix what’s gone wrong after 12 years of public school education."

"There’s something seriously wrong with the entire [educational] system," Tucker says.