The alarming numbers of college students who require remedial education courses continue to stir concerns within state policy, education and research circles. At least 20 to 25 percent of students at four- and two-year institutions require at least one remedial course, with the numbers reaching upwards of 60 percent at some community colleges.
But do states really have a solid grasp of how many and which students require remediation? Do states know whether these students succeed in, and beyond, remedial courses? A recent report published by the Education Commission of the States suggests that answer, in most cases, is a qualified, “no.” The ECS report, A Cure for Remedial Reporting Chaos: Why the U.S. Needs a Standard Method for Measuring Preparedness for the First Year of College, also points out that states calculate remedial rates using different methods, e.g., referrals based on assessment scores, course enrollment or both.
Some states, including Colorado, Nevada and Texas, publish comprehensive annual reports on remediation with information concerning placement, student characteristics and outcomes, and costs; other states, however, don’t appear to publicly report any remedial data.
An ECS analysis identified 39 states with remedial reports issued between 2009 and 2014. A selection from ECS’ preliminary findings indicates the following:
- 32 states reported statewide remedial education information, such as the number of students assessed as needing remediation in math and in English, on an annual basis for all institutions/postsecondary systems that offer remediation.
- 18 states provided information back to high schools on their graduates’ need for remediation in college.
- 17 states provided information on remedial placement based on race/ethnicity.
- 12 states reported student success in remedial courses.
- 7 states reported the cost of remedial education.
The variation in whether and how often states report remedial information, what data they include in the reports and the different remedial calculation methods makes it virtually impossible to accurately measure remedial rates in many states or to compare state efforts to improve remedial outcomes.
In response to these conditions, a steering committee that advised ECS developed two major recommendations:
- States should work together to develop and implement standard methods for measuring and reporting placement into, and progression through, remedial instruction.
- In developing these new methods, states should create a dynamic, comprehensive measurement tool focused on progress and success rather than state-level accountability or comparative rankings.
As a follow-up to our initial remedial report, ECS convened a technical advisory subcommittee to design a model framework for measuring and reporting remedial data. The elements of the model are presented in a companion document, A Common Framework for Remedial Reporting. The technical subcommittee recommended that the framework:
- Avoid the blunt “ranking” of states by focusing on student progress and outcomes.
- Enable stakeholders to use the information to evaluate the effectiveness of state-level remedial reform initiatives.
- Accommodate for the capacity and sophistication of states’ data systems and be user-friendly.
- Incorporate multiple college readiness indicators, including the various national assessments used by states and students’ prior academic performance.
Hopefully, the proposed framework will stimulate action among policymakers to consider adopting reporting practices that are common across states. There is precedent for such collaboration. In 2005, through the National Governors Association, states voluntarily agreed on a universal way to calculate the high school graduation rate, which had previously varied considerably from state to state. The agreement led to efforts to improve data collection, reporting, analysis and sharing of best practices to improve graduation rates.
The potential exists for similar collaborative efforts aimed at improving the consistency of remedial education data reporting and increasing the success of students who are underprepared for college-level coursework. The timing is ideal for such an agreement since a growing number of states and postsecondary systems are pursuing reforms to their remedial assessment, placement and instructional policies.
Comprehensive and consistent data are essential for state and education leaders to fully understand the scope and nuances of students’ remedial needs, inform potential solutions and to evaluate reform strategies. Without a common reporting framework, promising efforts to assist students may go unnoticed, thus risking the opportunity to advance transformative initiatives within and across states. The ultimate goal of the ECS remedial reports is to spur states to provide and use more robust data to significantly improve the success of all students and to support states’ efforts to increase college completion and attainment rates.
Mary Fulton is a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.
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