Competing Goals Make It Hard to Fix Community College Remediation System, New Study Finds

NEW YORK, November 1, 2011 — Community colleges are pulled between several competing goals as they design policies for their underprepared students; the result is a remediation system that serves neither students nor institutions well, concludes a new paper from the Community College Research Center.

The study, which addresses a nationwide problem by closely analyzing remediation placement and programming at CUNY’s six community colleges, identifies several sets of conflicting institutional goals that are the primary causes of dysfunction in remedial education systems. Chief among these tensions are the need for efficient vs. effective methods to assess students’ college readiness, and the push to increase college completion while upholding standards.

In order to efficiently process thousands of students, most community colleges use standardized assessments to test entering students. However, as CCRC’s research has determined, these tests are not always reliable measures of a student’s ability to pass college-level classes. As a result, many students assigned to remediation may not actually need remediation to succeed in their chosen program of study. Ultimately, effective assessment is sacrificed to achieve colleges’ more pressing goal of efficiency.

A second tension exists between the goals of promoting student progression and upholding standards. Community colleges want to maintain high standards in college courses and believe that assessment tests help them do so by screening out underprepared students. However, once students are assigned to remedial classes, many of them never progress to college-level courses. This failure is not simply a result of poor academic skills. Research indicates that students with comparable assessment scores are more likely to enroll in and successfully complete college-level courses when they were assigned to fewer remedial classes.

To resolve these tensions, the paper lays out several recommendations. First, faculty across disciplines and colleges within a system should work together to create well-defined learning outcomes for key introductory courses. These learning outcomes should serve as a basis to design common placement exams for incoming students. Exams should include a manageable number of discrete components, and school policy should allow for the addition or subtraction of these components based on a student’s program of study. For instance, a student who wants to pursue a degree in engineering should have to take and pass more advanced components in a math test than a student pursuing an English or anthropology degree.

In addition, colleges should shorten and accelerate developmental sequences, provide learning support for students with specific deficiencies (identified via the placement exam), and integrate remedial content into programs of study—for example, “developmental math for business and accounting.” Finally, colleges should not rely only on placement exams to ensure academic rigor. Instead, faculty should develop clear learning outcomes that can serve as a foundation for continuous improvements to teaching and learning.