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The Remedial Controversy
Different states offer various solutions

ECHOES OF THE New York City remedial education controversy can be heard across the country.

In California, trustees of the 22-campus California State University system, troubled by a steady increase in the number of students who need remedial help in English and/or mathematics, have introduced policies intended to reduce the need for remediation to not more than ten percent of regularly admitted freshmen by fall 2007. However, in the two years since these policies were adopted, the number of students needing special help has gone up, not down.

Texas legislators are beginning to chafe at the cost of providing remedial instruction (called "developmental" education in Texas) -- an estimated $172.5 million for the 1998-1999 biennium.

Massachusetts now limits remedial instruction to ten percent of freshmen at public four-year colleges and next year will lower the cap to five percent. Other states that have taken measures to curtail remedial classes include Louisiana, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

Nationally, about 30 percent of entering freshmen take at least one remedial class, and more than three-quarters of all higher education institutions, public and private, offer such courses, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Some highly selective colleges and universities claim they do not provide remedial instruction but most do, under one guise or another, even such institutions as Harvard, Yale and the University of Chicago.

Most remedial education takes place in two-year community colleges and carries no credit.

The cost is about $1 billion a year, roughly one percent of national public higher education revenues, David W. Breneman, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, and William N. Haarlow, a higher education doctoral intern at the school, reported in a recent paper.

Research on the effectiveness of remedial work is skimpy, but Clifford Adelman, a visiting fellow at The College Board, after studying a decade's worth of college transcripts, has concluded that, "the more you take, the less your chances of ever getting a bachelor’s degree." (See Adelman's article, "The Kiss of Death?")

New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is not alone in regarding the spread of remedial work as a blight on the landscape of higher education.

"From coast to coast, the quality of academic excellence in our colleges and universities is going down," James Carlin, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said recently. "If a student is not prepared for four-year college work, that student should not be in the institution. It's not fair to the taxpayer."

But others believe remediation is vital if the nation is to provide postsecondary educational opportunities for the maximum number of people from all income levels.

"We need all Americans, we can't throw any people away" Robert McCabe, former chancellor of 50,000-student Miami-Dade Community College told the Christian Science Monitor recently. "If we have large numbers of people who don't have the skills society is calling for, then we lose in every way."

In the middle of the country there seems to be little controversy over remedial classes.

"Quite the contrary," said David Murphy, executive director of the Midwestern Higher Education Commission, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. "There is a growing body in the Midwest concerned about the tremendous drop-out rates in some of our metropolitan areas, like Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis...there is much more focus on (remedial education) as the door to higher education becomes more open, but I’m not aware of any efforts to do away with it."

But in several heavily-populated border and coastal states with large numbers of recent immigrants -- California, Florida, New York, Texas -- the story is different.


The University of California, which selects most of its new freshmen from among the top one-eighth of the state’s high school graduates, claims not to offer remedial instruction.

However, last fall 37 percent of entering freshmen failed the university’s writing test and had to enroll in a course once called "bonehead English" but now referred to more politely as "Subject A." The failure rate at the university's eight general campuses ranged from 16.3 percent at UC Berkeley to 61.8 percent at UC Riverside. "Subject A" classes cost the UC Santa Barbara campus alone more than $250,000 last year.

"We redefine it and say we aren't offering remedial course work, but, of course, we are," George Hanson, head of UC San Diego's Subject A program, told The Los Angeles Times.

In January 1996, distressed by the increasing need for remedial classes, the Board of Trustees of the California State University system adopted a plan that was intended to reduce the number of students in need of remedial work in English and/or mathematics by ten percent by the year 2004. By 2007, the trustees said, such courses should be required by no more than ten percent of entering freshmen.

However, last year the percentage of Cal State freshmen who failed the English placement exam, and thus required remediation, rose from 43 percent to 47 percent, and failures on the math exam increased from 53 percent to 54 percent.

"We knew the numbers would go up because more students are being tested," said Allison G. Jones, senior director for access and retention. "In the past, many students avoided testing until late in their college careers, if they were tested at all. Now they can't do that."

Jones said the number of students failing the placement tests should begin to decline in 1999.

However, Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed said this will only happen "if the public schools change a lot."

If high schools will "teach reading and writing through the 12th grade" and insist that college-bound students take algebra 2 and geometry, "I think we could see a miraculous turnaround in three or four years," Reed said. "If this doesn't happen, I'm not optimistic."

Eventually, Reed would like to shift most remedial instruction to the community colleges. This is how it is done in Florida, where Reed was head of the state university system before taking over at Cal State last March.

"The community colleges do this better, they do it less expensively and our faculty don't like to do it at all," the chancellor said.

In most of the 106 California community colleges, remedial education, or "basic skills instruction," as it is called there, is a major enterprise.

Last fall, course enrollments totaled 427,595 (many students took more than one remedial class, and system officials do not know how many individuals were enrolled) and the cost was more than $221 million.

"Basic skills instruction is clearly a part of our mission," as spelled out in the State Education Code, said Rita Cepeda, systemwide vice chancellor for educational services and economic development.

There is occasional grumbling about the large number of students enrolled in these classes, and their cost, but there has been no serious attempt to curtail remedial instruction in the two-year colleges.


Since 1984, most remedial instruction (called "college prep") has been assigned to Florida's community colleges. Entering students at the nine campuses of the State University System who fail one or more of the reading, writing and mathematics entrance tests may remain on the rolls of a four-year institution but must take their remedial work at a community college.

(The only exception is Florida A&M, the state's only historically black university, which runs its own college prep program.)

Ten percent of the students entering the state university system last fall failed at least one of the tests. Of the 35,000 community college students who took the tests, 21,000, or 61 percent, failed at least one.

About 80 percent of the students in remedial classes are not recent high school graduates but older students who need to brush up their skills, usually in math, before entering the higher education mainstream.

Last year, the legislature passed a law requiring students who failed a college prep course to pay the full cost of the course on their second try. No data are yet available on the effects of this policy but anecdotal information from the community colleges suggests that many students who fail the remedial classes are dropping out.


During the 1996-97 academic year, only 45.5 percent of students entering Texas public colleges and universities passed all three parts of the state-required Texas Academic Skills Program (TASP) examination -- reading, writing and mathematics. That means 54.5 percent required some degree of "developmental education." (State law forbids use of the term "remedial.")

The state expects to spend $172.5 million on remedial work during the current biennium (1998-99).

"The cost of it has a lot of legislators appalled but nobody knows what to do about it," said Ron Swanson, TASP director.

"There have been calls to move it back to the high schools or at least to the community colleges," said Don Brown, executive director of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. "The issue is simmering."

—William Trombley, William Doyle, Jennifer Davis



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