Remediation: Reports of Its Failure Are Greatly Exaggerated

An NCDE/NADE Statement on Research and Developmental Education 

After learning that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal, Mark Twain responded that "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." The same might be said for remedial courses; reports of their failure are greatly exaggerated. Based on either misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the available research, many policy makers and higher education organizations are asserting that remediation has failed. This is not a valid assertion, nor one that is supported by a careful reading of the available research.

We would certainly agree that there is much to be improved in the way we teach remedial courses in colleges and universities. We also agree with and support the legitimate efforts of foundations, research centers, and other higher education agencies to reform and improve remedial courses. However, policy makers and the media have distorted the available data on remedial courses to such a degree that it undermines reform efforts.

To say that remediation has completely failed is to denigrate the innovative and successful efforts of countless instructors on countless campuses to help students overcome underpreparedness. The fact that these efforts are only taking place on a minority of college and university campuses no doubt contributes to the negative findings of some research reports. But there are many professionals doing an outstanding job of teaching remedial courses and getting excellent results that are not reflected when large sample data is aggregated. These professionals should not have their efforts denigrated by those who understand neither the available research nor the challenges involved in teaching underprepared students. In fact, it is their efforts that have led to many of the innovations now being promoted in the developmental education reform movement.

Assuming that providing the facts is the best way to counter erroneous assertions, the National Center for Developmental Education and the National Association for Developmental Education have assembled most of the major reports on the efficacy of remedial courses. The abstracts of these reports are provided below as well as a link to the complete report. We invite our colleagues to read these reports, make their own judgments, and share their observations with administrators, colleagues, policy makers, and the news media.

THE STUDIES

Attewell, P., Lavin, D., Domina, T., & Levey, T. (2006). New evidence on college remediation. Journal of Higher Education, 77(5), 886–924.

Abstract: Using college transcript data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS88), we separate the effects of remedial coursework from high school preparation. For two-year colleges, taking remedial classes was not associated with less academic success. In four-year colleges, there are negative effects of remedial coursework, but many minority students who complete a bachelor's degree do so after taking remediation.

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Bahr, P. R. (2008). Does mathematics remediation work? A comparative analysis of academic attainment among community college students. The Review of Higher Education, 49, 420-450.

Abstract: Postsecondary remediation is a controversial topic. On one hand, it fills an important and sizeable niche in higher education. On the other hand, critics argue that it wastes tax dollars, diminishes academic standards, and demoralizes faculty. Yet, despite the ongoing debate, few comprehensive, large-scale, multi-institutional evaluations of remedial programs have been published in recent memory. The study presented here constitutes a step forward in rectifying this deficit in the literature, with particular attention to testing the efficacy of remedial math programs. In this study, I use hierarchical multinomial logistic regression to analyze data that address a population of 85,894 freshmen, enrolled in 107 community colleges, for the purpose of comparing the long-term academic outcomes of students who remediate successfully (achieve college-level math skill) with those of students who achieve college-level math skill without remedial assistance. I find that these two groups of students experience comparable outcomes, which indicates that remedial math programs are highly effective at resolving skill deficiencies.

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Bailey, T., Jeong, D., & Cho, S. (2011). Referral, enrollment, and completion in developmental education sequences in community colleges. Economics of Education Review, 29(2), 225-270.

Abstract: After being assessed, many students entering community colleges are referred to one or more levels of developmental education. While the need to assist students with weak academic skills is well known, little research has examined student progression through multiple levels of developmental education and into entry-level college courses. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the patterns and determinants of student progression through sequences of developmental education starting from initial referral. We rely primarily on a micro-level longitudinal dataset that includes detailed information about student progression through developmental education. This dataset was collected as part of the national community college initiative Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count. The dataset has many advantages, but it is not nationally representative; therefore, we check our results against a national dataset—the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Our results indicate that fewer than one half of the students who are referred to remediation actually complete the entire sequence to which they are referred. About 30 percent of students referred to developmental education do not enroll in any remedial course, and only about 60 percent of referred students actually enroll in the remedial course to which they were referred. The results also show that more students exit their developmental sequences because they did not enroll in the first or a subsequent course than because they failed or withdrew from a course in which they were enrolled. We also show that men, older students, African American students, part-time students, and students in vocational programs are less likely to progress through their full remedial sequences.

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Bettinger, E., & Long, B. (2005). Addressing the needs of under-prepared students in higher education:Does college remediation work? (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper # 11325). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Abstract: Each year, thousands of students graduate from high school academically unprepared for college. As a result, approximately one-third of entering postsecondary students require remedial or developmental work before entering college-level courses. However, little is known about the causal impact of remediation on student outcomes. At an annual cost of over $1 billion at public colleges alone, there is a growing debate about its effectiveness. Who should be placed in remediation, and how does it affect their educational progress? This project addresses these critical questions by examining the effects of math and English remediation using a unique dataset of approximately 28,000 students. To account for selection biases, the paper uses variation in remedial placement policies across institutions and the importance of proximity in college choice. The results suggest that students in remediation are more likely to persist in college in comparison to students with similar test scores and backgrounds who were not required to take the courses. They are also more likely to transfer to a higher-level college and to complete a bachelor's degree.

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Boatman, A., & Long, B.T. (2010, September). Does remediation work for all students? How the effects of postsecondary remedial and developmental courses vary by level of academic preparation. (NCPR Working Paper). New York: National Center for Postsecondary Research, Teachers College Columbia University.

Abstract: Each year, thousands of American students enter postsecondary institutions unprepared for college-level work and are subsequently placed in remedial or developmental courses. Several recent studies have examined the impact of these courses on student outcomes, but such studies focus exclusively on students who need just one or two classes; the impact of remediation on students with more severe levels of underpreparedness is unknown. This study addresses this hole by examining the impact of remedial and developmental courses on students at multiple points on the preparedness distribution. Using longitudinal data from Tennessee, we estimate the effects of placement into varying levels of mathematics, reading, and writing courses for students attending public four- and two-year colleges and universities. This is possible due to the state's multi-tiered system in which students could be assigned into one of four levels of mathematics and one of three levels of reading and writing courses. Therefore, unlike previous studies, we examine the effects of remediation on a wider range of students than previously analyzed. Using regression discontinuity (RD) techniques, we provide causal estimates of the effects of placement on a number of student outcomes, including persistence, degree completion, the number of total and college-level credits completed, and college GPA. The results suggest that remedial and developmental courses do differ in their impact by the level of student preparation. Similar to other research, we find negative effects for those students on the margins of needing any remediation. However, at the other end of the academic ability spectrum, the negative effects of remediation were much smaller and occasionally positive. These results suggest that remedial and developmental courses help or hinder students differently depending on their level of academic preparedness.

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Calcagno, J., & Long, B. (2008, August). The impact of postsecondary remediation using a regression discontinuity approach: Addressing endogenous sorting and non-compliance (NCPR Working Paper). New York, NY: National Center for Postsecondary Research, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Abstract: Remedial or developmental courses are the most common policy instruments used to assist underprepared postsecondary students who are not ready for college-level coursework. However, despite its important role in higher education and its substantial costs, there is little rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of college remediation on the outcomes of students. This study uses a detailed dataset to identify the causal effect of remediation on the educational outcomes of nearly 100,000 college students in Florida, an important state that reflects broader national trends in remediation policy and student diversity. Moreover, using a Regression Discontinuity design, we discuss concerns about endogenous sorting around the policy cutoff, which poses a threat to the assumptions of the model in multiple research contexts. To address this concern, we implement methods proposed by McCrary (2008) and discuss the strengths of this approach. The results suggest math and reading remedial courses have mixed benefits. Being assigned to remediation appears to increase persistence to the second year and the total number of credits completed for students on the margin of passing out of the requirement, but it does not increase the completion of college-level credits or eventual degree completion. Taken together, the results suggest that remediation might promote early persistence in college, but it does not necessarily help students on the margin of passing the placement cutoff make long-term progress toward earning a degree.

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Martorell, P. & McFarlin, I. (2007). Help or hindrance? The effect of college remediation on academic and labor market outcomes. Unpublished manuscript. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, and University of Michigan.

Abstract: Providing remedial (also known as developmental) education is the primary way colleges and universities cope with students who do not have the academic preparation needed to succeed in college-level courses. Remediation is widespread, with nearly one-third of entering freshmen taking remedial courses at a cost of at least $1 billion per year. As such, it constitutes an important example of a "second-chance" intervention designed to help young people develop human capital. Despite its prevalence in American higher education, there is considerable uncertainty surrounding its short- and longer-run effects. This paper presents new evidence on this question using longitudinal administrative data from the state of Texas and a research design that exploits the sharp test score cutoffs used to assign students to remediation. Aside from weak evidence that remediation improves the grades received in college-level mathematics courses, we find little indication that students benefit from remediation. Our estimates indicate that remediation has a minimal impact on the years of college completed, academic credits attempted, receipt of an academic degree, and labor market performance.