Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remedial Education, an Introduction to the Reality of College Today

The Myth of Remediation


A student came to me for my developmental math class, and passed, with hard work. He took me again for College Algebra, and Trigonometry, passing both. He graduated, off to a local university. Two years later, he came to me for help in his latest math course, Differential Equations.

--A rare success story for me. At one institution, not one student in four years went from developmental math to successfully passing Calculus I, much less Differential Equations, which is taken after Calculus III.


     A great scam needs suckers, and the more suckers, the better. It didn’t take long before administrators realized that the big, big money was in broadening the market, dragging remedial students into the pool of victims.

     The easily acquired and plentiful student loan scheme means anyone can go to college, but what if the student has little in the way of academic skill or interest? A popular TV commercial hawking college education has the would-be student sing about not doing great in high school—enough to keep a student out of college, years ago, and evidence the myth is still alive. It’s not just late night TV commercials that target these potential students (or should I say victims?) for enrollment, although there has always been some option for remedial classes at college or university. Only a few such classes were offered, since “in the good old days,” only a few students lacking in basic skills could nonetheless gain admittance to an institution.

     No matter the era, no matter the subject, no matter the class, there are always going to be some students weaker than others. Both faculty and administration were against students being in classes beyond their capability, albeit for different reasons. Even a few weak students force the teacher to slow down, and reduce course content, and that harms the prepared and hardworking students, who need that content to succeed in later courses…and the weaker students still fail. This lowers passing rates, which administration cannot tolerate.

Answer: “The Rapist.”

Question: “How does a remedial psychology student pronounce the word ‘therapist’?”

--Campus joke.


     An aberration emerged from the unholy alliance between faculty and administration: institutional remediation. The weaker students, the ones more likely to fail, would be identified and shuffled off to special classes, so that faculty wouldn’t have to deal with them in the “regular” courses. Administration could still claim a large student base, and better course passing rates as well. This is a win-win situation, in theory, and absolutely there needs to be an option for students that legitimately have reasons for not knowing basic material, material they’ll need to know if they want to learn the concepts of higher education. As long as the numbers of students requiring remediation are small, the system was fairly effective at giving borderline students a chance to prove they really could excel in a college environment, despite a rough start.

     In today’s college environment, entrance restrictions are minimal, so most anyone can get accepted into an institution of higher learning. Student loans are not strictly acquired by people who “want to learn,” even if they don’t know all that much to begin with. Instead, student loans are granted to anyone who can “check a box saying you are a degree seeking student.” Administrations at many institutions have become very successful at talking people into checking that box, and remediation has come to dominate “higher education” now, with a great number of incoming students requiring one or more remedial courses before beginning a real college education. There would be many more remedial students, a clear majority even, but administration has “defined down” college material over the years to keep this from happening.

     Even institutions with admission standards still admit remedial students. To take a college math course the student might need to score 250 on a placement test, while the admission “standard” requires the student to score 200 to get admitted to the college. While one has to chuckle at a college “standard” that admits students not ready for college, such is quite common. Having a great number of students going into remedial courses looks bad for institutions of higher education, but administration tirelessly works to fix this problem, but not in a way that a person of integrity might think:


“We’re going to reduce the score necessary on the placement test to get into College Algebra so that even the weakest students will be told they can skip developmental courses if they want to. They’ll still be competitive.”


--Administrator, explaining a clever plan to reduce the number of students taking remedial courses. Until I heard this, I had no idea that getting an education was a competition. This change in policy led to several disastrous years in the entry level mathematics courses.


     When a student tries to enroll for an entry level course, often he’ll take some sort of placement test to see where he fits as far as reading, writing, and mathematical skills. There are many sorts of tests, each with their own special scoring system, ultimately translated into either “good enough for a college level course” or “should take a remedial course.” Amongst the many choices, most institutions favor some form of standardized test, paying a dollar or two per student for the privilege of having an independent company quickly grade and administer the test online. These tests are far from perfect, but have been around for decades, with constant improvement by many private corporations legitimately interested in providing a better, more accurate product. They are quick, cheap, and about 95% accurate for determining which mathematics course a student should take next. Quick and cheap are important factors—the days of real “entrance examinations” for incoming college students are long over, students want to be admitted quickly, and administration complies. The advantage to online grading is there’s no need to wait for faculty to come in to grade the test; even if no faculty are around, the test can be administered and graded in a matter of minutes, an hour at most and often less. The 95% accuracy might sound very good, but it means that in every classroom of at least 20 students, you’ll expect one student was misdiagnosed by the test.   

     I admit that’s high, but institutions have no choice in the matter: they really need way to figure out where a student belongs. It’s not feasible to administer to every student a 3 hour comprehensive test and hand grade it (this would be around 99% accurate, and costly, assuming an incoming student would take such a test). A fast, cheap test that costs almost nothing to administer is a fine solution, and this as good a way as any to determine the extent of mathematical education a person received in 12 years of public school. To get around the “low” accuracy of the test, any student who complains bitterly enough can take any course he wants, going into remedial if the test says he should be in College Algebra, or vice versa. This event is rare, but happens, usually to the detriment of the student—at some point you have to let a person make his own mistakes.

    As hinted at above, administration hates losing control of students to placement tests, and is always looking into ways to take back control. The most likely way in the future will be through PARCC, a placement test that will allow students to place out of placement tests. It probably will be more accurate, as some parts will be hand-graded, making it harder for a student to look knowledgeable with just a few lucky guesses. A planned trial on 20 million tests will take place soon. It doesn’t take a calculator to see the amount of money being poured into re-inventing the placement tests is huge. Administration clearly wants this control, and a reasonable person might wonder how well they could be trusted with this power.

     A student that does poorly on a placement test, no matter how poorly, is never turned away. “No problem,” says college admissions, “you’ll just need to take a developmental course or two and then you’ll be fine!” Years ago, these types of courses were called “remedial,” and this is a more accurate word, since it indicates a correction of something deficient, in this case deficiency of skills and knowledge that should have been gained in public school. “Remedial” became something of a slur, so they started calling them “developmental,” which administration insists means the same thing, just not a slur. Whatever the name for these courses, administration certainly never tells students that fewer than 1 in 10 remedial students will get a 2 year degree within 3 years1 That’s above a 90% failure rate…these are not good odds for making a low-interest loan. That’s just getting the degree, even with a degree it’s not at all certain the graduate will get a job that pays sufficiently to address the loan.

     And those are the successful students! 40% of students that start in remedial never make it out of remedial courses. Of course, the college gets the loan money, while the student gets the debt, so the college has no reason to tell the student such depressing information…he might change his mind about going to college, and there goes that sweet check.


“Someone’s making a lot of money off this. Not us.”

--Mathematics department head, at another daylong meeting addressing ways to improve remediation.


     Another dirty little secret of remediation is the sheer size of it. College remediation is a 3 billion dollar industry, and over half of incoming community college students will require remedial coursework (around 20% of university students will require remediation, but this is a little misleading since most weaker students get directed towards community college). Keep this in mind when a community is being sold on opening up a community college for “higher education”: the majority of the students there will be learning high school level material—material the community already paid for their children to learn in high school. Universities even have tried to justify rising tuition costs due to all the additional remediation they do. If remediation were truly that expensive, the university could just, well, not admit the remedial students in the first place, although administration would never turn down a warm body.

      Actually, to call the material high school level is rather generous. It makes sense to look at remedial courses in some detail, to make it easier to see what’s going on in this critical stream of institutional revenue. I’ll focus on the math courses since I know them well, although the situation is only a little different in the English courses. We'll start with 'College Algebra' next time.