Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
College remediation rates are the school accountability measure du jour. Once relegated to the dusty realms higher education, a topic largely ignored unless it involves athletics or scandals (or athletic scandals), remediation rates took center court when Colorado and other states linked K-12 and postsecondary databases.
All of a sudden, we could evaluate individual districts and schools by examining what percentages of their graduates were assigned to remedial college courses.
Like too many educational measures, college remediation rates are often misused and misunderstood. Specifically, I have noticed that they are often mentioned in the same breath as high school graduation rates. By this I mean that they are treated as if they are alternatives to standardized exams—i.e. as holistic assessments of the ultimate outcome of 12-plus years of education.
They are not.
At least not in Colorado and many other states. According to Colorado’s remedial education policy, students are referred to remedial courses based upon their math, reading and/ or writing scores on ACT, SAT or ACCUPLACER exams. For instance, first-time undergraduates are referred to math remediation if they earn less than a 19 on the ACT math section, less than a 470 on the SAT math section or less than 85 on the ACCUPLACER Elementary Algebra test.
So unless you believe that these tests are holistic indicators of a student’s past performance and future potential (and some do), remediation rates are not alternative measures that prove or disprove the success or failure of the standardized testing movement or add a new, non-test-related dimension to the test score data already supplied by the state. At least not in Colorado. In Colorado, remediation rates ARE standardized exams.
There are certainly advantages to using a single, statewide cutoff score to assign students to remedial courses: It is quick. It is consistent. It is cost-efficient.
But is it valid? Questions were raised for me by a February Gates Foundation-funded report that Katherine L. Hughes and Judith Scott-Clayton wrote for the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. In their working paper, Hughes and Scott-Clayton describe the results of a 2009 meta-analysis (a quantitative summary of multiple studies) by the College Board, which administers the ACCUPLACER: When it comes to community college students whose test scores are high enough to exempt them from remediation, the correlation between the ACCUPLACER score and receiving a C in the relevant course ranges from .25 for the algebra exam to .10 for the reading comprehension test. (Correlations range from 0, meaning no relationship between the test and the course grade to 1, meaning the test score perfectly predicts the course grade).
Hughes and Scott-Clayton do conclude that ACCUPLACER and its ACT counterpart COMPASS are “reasonably valid predictors” at least for the students who place out of remediation. (The meta-analysis did not account for students who were assigned to remediation based upon their test scores.)
But they note that the tests are better at predicting results in math than in literacy and better at discerning which students will receive a B than which students will fail. Further, the tests do not take into account many factors that are important for college success (e.g. study skills, the presence of a strong support person). The test vendors themselves recommend using multiple measures to more accurately assign students to remediation.
An eye-opening session I attended at the recent Education Writers Association’s conference in New Orleans raised more questions for me about remediation rates based on test scores. During a panel discussion, Bruce Vandal of the non-profit, non-partisan Education Commission of the States noted that students often walk onto college campuses completely unaware that they will be required to take a test that day, much less a high stakes test that will have a profound effect on their chances of postsecondary success. Math is the most commonly flunked exam. Is it possible that a recent high school graduate has perhaps forgotten what he learned three or four years earlier in high school algebra?
For these reasons and others it is perhaps unsurprising that half of the students assigned to remediation have this reaction: They never even sign up for their remedial course.
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