Remedial Education

Remedial education (also known as developmental education, basic skills education, compensatory education, preparatory education, and academic upgrading) is assigned to assist students in order to achieve expected competencies in core academic skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Whereas special education is designed specifically for students with special needs, remedial education can be designed for any students, with or without special needs; the defining trait is simply that they have reached a point of lack of preparedness, regardless of why. For example, even people of high intelligence can be under-prepared if their education was disrupted, for example, by internal displacement during civil disorder or a war.

Postsecondary remediation is delivered on both 2-year community college and 4-year university campuses in the U.S. The bulk of remedial courses focus on advancing underprepared students' literacy skills (English and reading) or math skills. However, remedial courses can also be offered for other subjects such as science or study skills.

Student placement
Many students are placed into remedial courses through placement tests such as the ACT, SAT, ACCUPLACER, or COMPASS assessments. Often, each college or university sets its own score thresholds for determining whether a student must enroll in remedial courses. However, some states are moving toward a uniform standard for remedial placement cut scores. Students are required to enroll in remedial courses before advancing to a college level course in that subject. Colleges review a student's score by subject - math, English, science, etc. - and compare that score to the school's cutoff. For example, a college might use a score of 19 on the ACT math section as the threshold for determining whether a student must enroll in a remedial math course or college-level math course.

Particularly at community colleges - which are open enrollment to any student with a high school degree or GED - multiple semesters of remedial coursework may be available to and required of students that enter with low placement test scores.

Whether placement tests are the most effective method of placing students is an open debate across the US. Some colleges and states are experimenting with using high school GPA and placement test scores to determine student course referral. A study of placement tests by the Community College Research Center in 2012 found:

Placement test scores are not especially good predictors of course grades in developmental education classes. More importantly, the tests do not have much explanatory power across a range of measures of performance including college GPA, credit accumulation, and success in gatekeeper English and math classes.
-- Clive Belfield and Peter M. Crosta

Using GPA with standardized test scores may also improve the accuracy of remedial placement and limit the likelihood of placing students into additional remedial courses they may not need. North Carolina recently implemented a statewide policy that allows two-year colleges to use both placement test scores and high school GPA to place students.

Student enrollment
Estimates on the portion of students in higher education taking remedial courses vary. At two-year colleges the percentage reported of students taking at least 1 remedial course varies from 41% to as high as 60%. Students from low-income households, African American students and Hispanic students are more likely to enroll in remedial courses. National estimates show that among two-year college students, students age 17-19 are most likely to enroll in remedial courses followed by students age 20-24 and then students age 25+.

The likelihood of remedial placement varies among states because of high school preparation, student demographics and state policies for assessing and placing students in remedial courses. Previous proportions of recent high school graduates enrolling in remedial courses at two-year colleges range from over 70% in Tennessee to 31% in North Carolina. The proportion of students enrolling in remedial courses on public, four-year college campuses is generally lower ranging from 35% in South Dakota to 5% in Washington state.

The state of Colorado issued a 2012 report on remedial placement showing that 40% of recent high school students enrolled in remedial courses at both two-year and 4- year colleges. Sixty-six (66%)of students enrolled in a two-year college and 24% of students at a four-year institution needed remediation.

Educators and researchers also question whether many of the students directed into remediation ultimately need the course work, and some studies have found that the current method of using placement tests to assign students to remedial courses may be related to over placement.

Course delivery
There is an active debate on how remedial courses should be delivered to students. Students that are placed into remedial courses hold differing skill levels and needs for support. There is an active debate on whether students that are on the upper end of the skill spectrum may be most successful bypassing remedial coursework and enrolling in college-level courses with additional tutoring (see National Efforts to Strengthen Remediation). In contrast, students with larger skill deficiencies may require substantial math and English instruction before they can succeed academically. Researchers continue to investigate and make recommendations for effective remedial education models.

Currently, remedial education courses are delivered many ways across the United States:
Traditional, semester-long courses;
Cohort models that group a class of students together in a series of remedial courses;
Placing students in college-level courses with mandated tutoring or supplementary instruction;
Modularized courses that target particularly student skills;
Intensive, compressed courses that accelerate student readiness;
Courses that integrate remedial content with occupational skills;
Self-guided computer based courses that adapt to student skill deficiencies;
Online, in computer-based, traditional semester model.

In 2011, a nonprofit did a review of studies on remedial education delivery and found that, "programs that show the greatest benefits with relatively rigorous documentation either mainstream developmental students into college-level courses with additional supports, provide modularized or compressed courses to allow remedial students to more quickly complete their developmental work, or offer contextualized remedial education within occupational and vocational programs."

Accelerating the pace at which students progress through remedial courses is a reform now regularly highlighted in academic research and advocacy as effective for increasing student success. Often, remedial courses do not count toward a student's graduation requirements and taking many semesters of remedial education can lengthen a student's path to graduation and take up much needed financial aid. The Community College Research Center has found that accelerating a student's remedial English requirements resulted a higher likelihood of students completing their remedial sequences, a higher likelihood of enrolling in college-level English courses and a higher likelihood of students receiving a 'C' or better in the college-level course.

Online Courses: Some colleges have explored the use of providing remedial education courses online for students; however, evidence indicates that completion of online remedial courses is lower across almost every group of students compared to in-person remedial instruction. There is also evidence that students enrolling in online remedial education are less likely than their in-person counterparts to continue on to college-level coursework in the same subject.

The methods for delivering remedial education and whether to deliver remedial education are active debates in the U.S. As Bahr (Bahr 2008a, pp. 420-421) explains, "On one hand, it fills an important niche in U.S. higher education by providing opportunities to rectify disparities generated in primary education and secondary schooling, to develop the minimum skills deemed necessary for functional participation in the economy and the democracy, and to acquire the prerequisite competencies that are crucial for negotiating college-level coursework. On the other hand, critics argue that taxpayers should not be required to pay twice for the same educational opportunities, that remediation diminishes academic standards and devalues post-secondary credentials, and that the large number of underprepared students entering colleges and universities demoralizes faculty. Following from these critiques, some have argued for a major restructuring of remediation or even the elimination of remedial programs altogether."

Research on outcomes
Depending on their skill level upon entering college, students can spend from 1 to multiple semesters working to fulfill remedial requirements before advancing to college level courses required for their degree. An example of a full sequence of math remedial courses for low-skill students might include: 1) Pre-Collegiate Math, 2) Basic Algebra, and 3) Intermediate Algebra. There are many questions about how this structure both benefits students by increasing their preparation and harms students by increasing the courses required and time needed to complete college. Thomas Bailey from the Community College Research Center describes this in a 2010 report:

For example, those with the greatest need for developmental math may be expected to enroll in and pass pre-collegiate math or arithmetic, basic algebra, and intermediate algebra, in order to prepare them forcollege-level algebra.

Complete College America, a national non-profit working on remedial education reform, reports that among remedial students at two-year colleges 62% complete their remedial course and 23% complete associated college-level courses in that subject within 2 year (for example, complete math remediation and the college-level math requirements for their degree). On 4-year college campuses, 74% of students in remedial courses complete the course, and 37% complete remediation and an associated college-level course in that subject within 2 years. The same report projects that 9.5% of two-year college students starting in remediation will graduate within 3 years, and 35.1% of 4-year college students starting in remedial courses will graduate within 6 years.

Similarly, a nationwide study of two year college students participating in remedial education found 46% of students referred to remedial reading and 33% of students in math remediation completed their remedial sequence. A substantial portion of these non-completing students - 29% in math and 16% in reading - did so because they did not pass their remedial course. Another 11% of math students and 9% of reading students exited college without ever having failed or completed a remedial course. Students that enrolled in college and were placed into a sequence of 3 or more remedial courses were the least likely to persist to a college-level course. Like in all education pathways, there are many different points at which remedial students can step out of education. Research from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University suggests that many students do not complete their remedial sequences or do not enroll in the first college-level course in that subject.

National efforts
Over the last several years, a large amount of philanthropic and research attention has been directed at remedial education programs. Often, focus on remedial education is directed at 1) increasing the successful completion of remedial sequences 2) increasing the overall number of students with college degrees and certificates in the US and 3) decreasing the cost of remedial education to colleges and states.

Complete College America
A national non-profit organization, Complete College America (CCA), was established in 2009 and looks at paths to improving higher education outcomes for all students. The organization has provided large amounts of national data on the proportion of students enrolled in remedial courses across demographic groups. The organization has also worked with states to set goals for increasing college completion and making adjustments to higher education policies. Currently, CCA heavily promotes enrolling more students directly into college-level courses even though they would traditionally test into remedial courses. The organization also heavily promotes better aligning remedial courses with college-level courses, and using diverse measures of student academic standing for remedial placement.

Achieving the Dream
Originally an initiative led by the Lumina Foundation, Achieving the Dream focuses on increasing the success of college students - particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Starting in 2004 the project funded promising, data driven approaches to strengthening remedial education coursework. Today, Achieving the Dream is its own, national organization with the same driving mission: "Achieving the Dream is a national reform network dedicated to community college student success and completion; focused primarily on helping low-income students and students of color complete their education and obtain market-valued credentials." The organization continues to fund positive interventions that move underprepared students through remediation with greater success and features a list of best practices and exemplary colleges from which other higher education administrators can learn. Achieving the Dream promotes many different promising interventions that can increase the success of students including: first-year student success courses that provide students with the skills to navigate college expectations/academics more effectively, accelerated remedial courses in math and English, student mentoring and coaching, mandatory orientations for new students and supplementary computer tutoring for remedial students. Achieving the Dream also takes an active role in state policy advocacy and is currently working in 15 states to strengthen student remedial success.

Core Principles Statement
In December 2012, The Dana Center at the University of Texas, Complete College America, Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future released "Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education: A Joint Statement" with 7 key principles for strengthening community college remedial programs. The statement's principles included: aligning remedial courses with a student's long-term area of study at the college, using multiple measures to placement students in remedial courses, requiring all students -including under-prepared students- to pick a program of study when they enter college, integrating academic support services into pre college-level coursework, creating accelerated course models with students with larger skill deficiencies, and measuring completion of remedial courses.

Strategies that accelerate students through remedial coursework and on to college-level (also called gatekeeper) courses are widely promoted as one path to increasing the success of under-prepared students.

Changes in North Carolina
In 2012, North Carolina underwent a wide scale redesign of their remedial education programs. Branded as 'Success NC', the program's Developmental Education Initiative takes steps to redesign math and reading curricula, move students through remedial courses faster and better assess and place students. NC colleges can now incorporate high school grades into their course placement decisions. Additionally, starting in 2014, all colleges will deliver remedial reading & English in 3 shorter, 8 week modules for some students while allowing higher level remedial students to enroll in college-level English courses with required supplementary English instruction.

Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation
In 2009 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation appropriated $16.5 million to 15 colleges in 5 states to promote promising interventions in the remedial education. Fueled by the broader goal of increasing the number of college graduates nationwide, the Gates Foundation promoted remedial interventions that proved successful, particularly low-income students and students of color, through the Lumina Foundation's Achieving the Dream Initiative. A host of findings, recommendations and best practices ---including 25 Steps to Effective Remedial Education---from the Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation investments are now available through the Development Education Initiative through Achieving the Dream.