Just listened to a short discussion about the growing numbers of students requiring remediation in community colleges on NPR's Tell Me More. Host Michel Martin was talking with a reporter from Florida, so the conversation focused on the situation there. The discussion made some important points, but also some significant errors and omissions.
The reporter noted that most of the incoming students to community colleges in Florida are predominantly minority and/or low income. She also reported that the colleges use student performance on their college entrance tests to determine placement in remedial programs.
What was not mentioned is that in most places, individual colleges decide what scores students need to be classified as remedial. Here in Mississippi, for example, a student may be placed in regular Freshman College Composition with a score of 16 on the English section of the ACT at one community college, but need an 18 to enter that same course at another. Four-year universities, even Ivy League ones, also increasingly offer remedial classes (not mentioned in the story), and they may also have different score thresholds for determining who is or is not ready. Yet, if a student enters say--Comp I at any of those institutions and passes it, that course will transfer to the institution with the higher or lower entrance score. Hmmm. Is there really a difference in the "readiness" of the student who scores 16 and the one who scores 18? Read on.
To further complicate the college entrance/college readiness maze, the tests used to measure student ability in reading, writing, and math (especially the SAT and ACT) are known to be historically, consistently poor predictors of actual student potential, and that is especially true for minority students. At the community college where I teach, we painstakingly followed the perfomance of several thousand students and found that their initial score on the English section of the ACT had no correlation to their ability to successfully complete Freshman Composition.
Remedial programs have become extremely costly for students---in time and money. Most students who enter remedial classes at the start of their college career do not complete a degree. Ever. Remedial courses cost the same as regular college courses, but do not count towards degree credit. Many poorer students burn up their financial aid in remediation, pushing them either into student loans sooner, or out of college all together when they run out of money.
Colleges and college faculty are hardly united over what constitutes college readiness in math or English, which presents an interesting scenario as schools all over the U.S. scramble to implement Common Core standards that supposedly will ensure college readiness.
Consequently, there is a rising movement to radically change both the admission process and the approach to remediation at the college level. One suggestion is to do away with remedial classes, and place all entering students in credit-bearing college courses, while providing additional supports for those students who may need it (tutoring, learning centers, web resources, etc.).