Transforming Remediation: Understanding the Research, Policy, and Practice

On August 15 the College and Career Readiness and Success Center and the American Youth Policy Forum co-hosted the webinar, “Transforming Remediation: Understanding the Research, Policy, and Practice.” The Webinar addressed barriers to the successful completion of postsecondary education, specifically the need to alter and reform remedial education practices. Speakers included Bruce Vandal, Vice President at Complete College America; Katie Hern, Director of the California Acceleration Project; Cynthia D. Liston, Associate Vice President of  Policy Research and Special Projects at the North Carolina Community College System; and Michelle Hodara, Senior Researcher at Education Northwest.

The Webinar outlined the issues associated with postsecondary remediation. Traditionally, postsecondary remediation requires students to take a series of prerequisite courses prior to enrolling in credit-bearing courses. This creates what Hern referred to as “exit points” where students can be lost or drop out from the remedial course progression. In fact, a student who places two levels below college-level English or mathematics faces six potential exit points between enrolling in and completing the necessary remedial classes. As it stands, very few students are able to move beyond the progression of remedial courses to college-level courses. Vandal noted that among students taking three semesters of remediation, the likelihood of reaching a gateway course is alarmingly small; only 25 percent for English remediation, and just 10 percent for mathematics remediation.

The Webinar also covered a series of key attributes which work together to produce effective remedial education reform and move more students toward college success and completion. Vandal discussed the seven core principles for transforming remediation identified by Complete College America:

  • Gateway Courses – The completion of a set of gateway courses for a program of study is a critical measure of success toward college completion
  • Alignment – The content in required gateway courses should align with a student’s academic program of study, particularly in math;
  • Placement – Enrollment in a gateway college-level course should be the default placement for many more students;
  • Support – Additional academic support should be integrated with gateway college-level course content, as a “co-requisite,” not a prerequisite;
  • Acceleration – Students who are significantly underprepared for college-level academic work need accelerated routes into programs of study;
  • Multiple Measures – Multiple measures should be used to provide guidance in the placement of students in gateway courses and programs of study; and
  • Meta-Major – Students should enter a “meta-major” when they enroll in college and start a program of study in their first year in order to maximize their prospects of earning a college degree.

Vandal provided clarification on the final principle concerning meta-majors, noting its connection to the second principle concerning alignment of coursework and academic programs. Vandal explained that for some coursework, specifically mathematics, there is content which is unnecessary for the successful completion of a course of study. For example, while students who intend to pursue science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) programs require a college-level algebra foundation for calculus coursework, this is not necessarily true of humanities or liberal arts majors, who would be better served with a foundation in statistics. This theme of course alignment was echoed by the other speakers throughout the presentations.

The Webinar included the firsthand experiences of Liston and Hern, both of whom provided examples of the core principles in action. Liston, speaking from a system-wide perspective, gave an overview of the North Carolina Developmental Education Initiative, and provided a detailed account of the curriculum redesign process for remedial courses. This process included the use of multiple measures to place students, including high school GPA, enrollment history, and a newly-developed Diagnostic Assessment and Placement test which identifies discrete proficiency gaps. Hern gave two institutional examples of programs that provide alternatives to the traditional multi-semester remediation. Chabot College provides a one-semester pre-requisite course with an integrated reading and writing course open to students with any placement score below college-level. Hern also highlighted the co-requisite model used at the Community College of Baltimore County, where remedial students simultaneously enroll in a gateway college English course as well as a small support class with the same instructor. In both examples, the percentage of students completing college English courses nearly doubled as compared to traditional models.

The reform efforts highlighted by Liston and Hern generated discussion of competing priorities when addressing remedial education reform. Hodara highlighted three pairs of opposing forces which create tension in the design and execution of reform:

  • The system-wide consistency which is used to communicate clear and common college-ready standards versus the need for institutional autonomy and flexible policy which may be tailored to the needs of students.
  • The need for efficient and expedient assessments in the form of computer-adaptive placement tests versus effective assessments which provide a more holistic view of a student.
  • The desire to support the progression of all students toward college completion versus upholding standards which ensure adequate preparation for college-level coursework.

Hodara suggested that when identifying opportunities for reform, states and institutions of higher learning should consider their specific context, and select a balance between these interests which match their needs. Regardless of the exact path taken, the speakers all agreed that the current state of postsecondary remediation does not serve the students, and that many opportunities in policy and practice exist to move more students toward college completion.

Additional information, including the PowerPoint presentations from the Webinar, is available online on the CCRS Center and AYPF websites.


Austin Pate is a Research/Policy Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.

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