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Rethinking Remedial College Classes

February 29, 2012

The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College released two reports this week which both conclude that vast amounts of students, numbering in the tens of thousands, are being inappropriately placed in remedial classes, many of which are in STEM disciplines. These classes require students to pay tuition, but do not award them class credit, often contributing to students’ decisions not to complete their degrees. Less than 25% of students required to take remedial courses at community colleges earn their two-year degrees or continue on to four-year institutions.

According to the studies, one of a state community college system and one of a local urban system, the majority of students who take remedial courses as a result of their placement test scores could have passed a next level or college level course with a B or higher. The leading placement tests, College Board’s Accuplacer and ACT’s Compass, are often used in lieu of an examination of high school transcripts, which results in students being placed into classes they are both overqualified for. Unlike the SAT and ACT, students are generally not encouraged to prepare for placement tests, and the importance and ramifications of success on these tests is often under-emphasized.

Using students’ GPAs was shown to be equally successful in evaluating placement for college-level versus remedial courses, although the reports suggest using a combination of placement tests and transcript evaluation. “It’s probably a mistake to rely on any single measure for high-stakes decisions,” said Clive Belfield, a co-author of one of the studies. “Where you have both a test and a high school transcript, the best thing is to use both together.”

In response to remedial courses’ often negative effect on student success, many community colleges are re-evaluating and modifying their programs. In South Dakota, Lake Area Technical Institute allows each of its departments to set its own requirements, so that student proficiency is more closely matched to the subject they are studying. The Virginia Community College System also allows for different levels of proficiency by major field, and students who require remedial math education can focus solely on the modules where they are weakest, rather than being forced to take a semester long course.

We have discussed the importance of community college STEM programs a lot in the past week. By addressing the “dead end” of remedial courses, and addressing new methods of evaluating student placement to encourage greater numbers of students to continue their STEM studies, we can help to improve the quantity and quality of STEM scholars and workers, and ensure future growth of the STEM community.

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