“Help” That Doesn’t Help

The Washington Post has an interesting piece out about remediation placement examinations. As Jay Mathews writes:

The U.S. community college course-placement system is a mess. That includes the many well-regarded two-year colleges in the Washington area.

All of the local two-year colleges I surveyed were aware that new research is forcing them to justify remediation. Half to two-thirds of their incoming students must pay for no-credit catch-up courses before they are allowed to take credit courses in those subjects.

This requirement for remediation is contradicted by a study of thousands of community college students. Those who found ways to take for-credit courses despite flunking placement tests passed the courses 71 percent of the time.

This was apparently inspired by an article Susan Headden wrote for the last issue of the Monthly:

To be sure, open-access colleges need to assess the knowledge and abilities of incoming students. Dysfunctional public high schools routinely grant diplomas to students who lack basic math and reading skills. As a result, many new college students need help in order to grapple with college-level work. The problem is that colleges have chosen to deal with that challenge by diverting huge numbers of students into a parallel remedial education system with a dismal track record of helping students ultimately graduate from college. Compounding the problem, most colleges place students into the remediation track using nothing more than the results of a short, inexpensive, one-shot multiple-choice test of questionable accuracy and worth.

As Matthews explains, this has pretty intense implications for how community colleges do business, though it’s a little difficult to get anyone from a community college to admit that this is a problem. All schools with which Matthews spoke said they wanted to prepare student to earn credits. But apparently:

Remedial instructors said they are being unfairly criticized despite helping students who are far behind. “No one but us knows the students, but who is listening to us?” a teacher at NVCC [Northern Virginia Community College] said, according to Gabriel.

Well, frankly, if remedial education were effective no one would be concerned. Helping students who are far behind is great. Merely identifying students who are far behind is not useful.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer