The Monthly has long been interested in college remediation, the non-credit courses college students take that are supposed to prepare them for real college classes. Back in September / October 2009 Camille Esch wrote a piece for us about how most students tracked into remedial courses in community colleges never graduate, or even stay very long. Recently Susan Headden wrote an article for the magazine about the low-quality test that sends people to remedial courses. The state of remediation is clearly not great.

It turns out that a lot of this placement in remedial courses might not even reflect a real skill deficit, however. According to a press release issued by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, two new studies indicate that,

A quarter to a third of students assigned to remedial classes based on standardized test scores could have passed college-level classes with a grade B or better.

Both studies find that students’ high school performance is a better predictor of which students could pass college classes. In one study, using high school GPA to place students was estimated to reduce the probability of both under- and over- placement by 50%. In the other study, the benefits of using GPA instead of test scores was smaller (with a predicted 10-15% reduction in severe placement errors); but using the best of either placement test scores or high school GPA was predicted to lower the remediation rate by 8 to 11 percentage points while simultaneously reducing placement errors and increasing college level success rates.

There are, no doubt extensive problems with the level of preparation many students have for college, especially those who attend community colleges. But it appears most institutions don’t really do a great job trying to understand what students actually need to be prepared.

Students are mostly assigned into remedial courses (which have an abysmal success rate) by standardized “placement tests.” These tests aren’t very good at really placing students where they belong. It appears a lot of them just belong in regular college.

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