What does "remedial" mean? While a term that is used so frequently, and so freely, might seem to call for a clear definition, when applied to postsecondary education, its meaning is murky at best.
Standard dictionary definitions cannot provide sufficient guidance to understand college remediation, a complicated multi-disciplinary "process" that differs among institutions all across the country. At most broad-access open enrollment colleges, two- and four-year students take placement tests at the start of their first year to determine who can be placed in regular, credit-bearing courses, and who requires special remedial courses.
Most colleges consider course work that is below college-level to be remedial. But definitions of what constitutes "college-level" can vary dramatically. On one hand, this makes sense, given differing institutional missions, but the current situation is confusing for everyone involved, and students cannot be well informed about what knowledge and skills will be required in order to avoid remediation.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of different tests are used to evaluate entering students, so it can be difficult for students to understand what is expected of them. California community colleges, for example, use more than 100 different tests. Texas has a required statewide placement exam, but many colleges in Texas also use their own exam for placement. The most widely used placement tests are constructed by ETS and ACT, but many others are designed by higher education departments or faculty at individual campuses.
There is a wide range of acceptable student-performance levels, and tracking the proportion of students who need remedial education is virtually impossible. Indeed, estimates of the number and percent of remedial students are all over the place. None of the experts are comfortable with the current definitions.
The most widely cited remedial rates from the U.S. Department of Education, Condition of Education, 2001, are among the lowest: 42 percent of students in two-year institutions, and 20 percent in four-year institutions. Other indicators are much higher. The Academic Senate for the 109 California Community Colleges found far more than half of their entering students were placed at a "level below college readiness." The U.S. Education Department's "Principal Indicators of Student Academic Histories in Postsecondary Education, 1972-2000" reports that 12th graders in 1992 had a remediation rate of 61.1 percent for community colleges and 25.3 percent at four-year colleges.
In 2005, only 51 percent of high school graduates who were tested met ACT's "college readiness benchmarks" for reading. Another ACT study concluded that only 22 percent of 1.2 million high school seniors who took ACT in 2004 met their college benchmarks in college biology, algebra and English composition. These ACT data suggest remediation rates at four-year colleges could be much higher than the 25.3 percent reported by the U.S. Department's Study of Student Academic Histories.
It appears that, in addition to those who are labeled remedial, there are many more students ages 17 to 20 who are not ready for college. The Southern Regional Education Board declared that "the college-readiness problem is perhaps twice as large as the current remedial program statistics suggest." Most states have not set a student academic readiness standard for the various segments of public higher education. Moreover, my examination of college course catalogs in six states indicates that many non-remedial regular-credit courses, such as "intermediate algebra," involve subject matter that should be mastered in high school.
After synthesizing data from many sources, I estimate that 60 percent of students ages 17 to 20 in two-year colleges, and 30 percent in four-year institutions, need remedial courses. But I am not confident that this is correct, because, in sum, we do not accurately know—at the national and state levels—how many students need remedial education, what it costs, how many take it, how many complete it successfully, and what happens to those students after they complete those courses. And students can not prepare for college-level work ahead of time, because remedial and college-level standards are not connected to high school expectations, nor are they advertised to K—12 educators, students or parents. A first step is to separate adults from recent high school graduates, because their educational backgrounds are so different.
There are problems with all the technical calculations of remediation. Some U.S. Department of Education methods probably underestimate it. At the national level, the U.S. Department of Education's Postsecondary Education Quick Information System is a survey of two- and four-year schools. But the unit of analysis is the institution, not the student. It is very doubtful that college officials include all remedial students in their survey answers, because it is not in their interest to tell the public about high remediation rates. Remediation rates are also derived from the department's Beginning Postsecondary Education Student surveys, but remediation is self-reported by students, and all ages are mixed together. Aside from a mere reluctance to categorize themselves as remedial, some students might not know, for instance, that an algebra class they are taking is considered remedial or developmental.
Another approach is to analyze transcripts from databases like the National Education Longitudinal Studies (NELS). The U.S. Department of Education's staff must make decisions about which course titles on transcripts are classified as remedial. Although there are multiple checks in place to increase accuracy, this is a judgment game. The federal Department of Education excludes students below a minimum number of courses or credits, but some community college students drop out after taking only one or two remedial courses. Moreover, NELS is more than a decade old, and a number of indications suggest remediation has increased since 1995.
Remediation rates are very murky at the institutional level as well. While researching these issues, I found that the remediation rate at Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale was just 5.6 percent, much lower than San Jose State's 51 percent. Yet the entering students at these two institutions did not seem all that different. On closer examination I discovered that SIU outsources most remedial education to a nearby community college, so the remedial students show up in the community college reports. And this is a common practice. All analysts agree that there has been remedial outsourcing by four-year institutions in the last decade.
For students, there are risks attendant to remediation and the burden of taking extra non-credit courses, lengthening the time it takes to complete a degree or certificate, adding to the expense, and increasing the probability of dropping out. Students, for their part, do not seem aware of their position: In UCLA's 2001 survey of freshmen at the nation's four-year colleges, only nine percent reported they would need special tutoring or remedial work in English, but, of course, many more students require remedial education once they start at a four-year college.
But how many? The lack of definitive standards leaves it up to question, or even to semantics. For instance, while the University of Wyoming publicizes a new scholarship program for secondary students with a 2.5 grade point average and an ACT score of 17, many other institutions would consider such students to be in need of remedial education.
In sum, we have very little reliable data on remedial or developmental course-taking other than the NELS high school cohort studies. Variations in institutional remedial practices and definitions inhibit the ability to develop a standard definition of what counts as remedial education. So even solid numbers from a particular higher education institution or system cannot be aggregated. All of this makes it difficult for students to assess their own readiness for college.
What can be done about the need for more consistent, reliable and valid remediation rate data? Secondary and postsecondary education systems need to create a process to define and measure remediation based on curriculum content and assessment standards for specific subjects. Remediation standards need to be communicated clearly to secondary students, and linked to K-12 assessments that indicate whether high school students are ready for college. These K–16 standards need to be embedded in college placement tests that are aligned with K–12 tests.
Finally, students need to understand that admission to college does not mean that they will be able to take non-remedial courses; in most postsecondary institutions, the de facto high-stakes exams are the course placement tests.
Michael Kirst is a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, and a senior fellow of the National Center. He also writes a blog: