Remedial college for 'A' and 'B' students

Christina Jeronomo was an “A” student in high school English classes; she thought she was prepared for college. But she had to take remedial English at Long Beach Community College, delaying her goal of transferring to a four-year college where she can earn a psychology degree. From AP:

. . . a new study calculates, one-third of American college students have to enroll in remedial classes. The bill to colleges and taxpayers for trying to bring them up to speed on material they were supposed to learn in high school comes to between $2.3 billion and $2.9 billion annually.

“That is a very large cost, but there is an additional cost and that’s the cost to the students,” said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, chair of the group Strong American Schools, which is issuing the report “Diploma to Nowhere” on Monday. “These students come out of high school really misled. They think they’re prepared. They got a 3.0 and got through the curriculum they needed to get admitted, but they find what they learned wasn’t adequate.”

High school was too easy, Jeronimo says. She wishes she’d been told to work harder.

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  1. I realize these folks are perhaps only a few data points, but at the campus where I teach, anyone who’s homeschooled has to take the remediation classes. Which is frustrating for them, because the average homeschooled kid is better-prepared for college than the average public-school kid. So not everyone who’s made to take remediation necessarily needs it. (But the people who need it: Oy, I could tell you stories…)

    I went to a good private high school and found I was largely able to “coast” my first semester of college, and that the study skills I learned in high school (taking notes, studying a little bit every night, reading ahead) served me well. I think a lot of schools don’t teach study skills and that’s one area where students have a lot of trouble: I ask some of my students, when they come in to discuss why they failed a test, how long they studied, and they respond, “OH, I studied such a long time! A whole HOUR!”

  2. You ought to see how unprepared these kids are from an English composition perspective! I feel sorry for them every time I give them a failing grade on their first paper, and their faces fall. Then they come up to me and tell me “I always got As and Bs in high school…” All I can tell them is that we look for different criteria in college papers.

    I don’t blame them. I don’t blame their parents. I blame the people who were supposed to give them accurate feedback, and teach them to correct their mistakes. I blame the people who don’t teach them how to use the nuts and bolts of building papers. I blame their elementary school and middle school teachers–by high school and college, it’s almost too late to teach them how to correctly use punctuation and grammar rules.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    High schools should spend more time on the writing skills needed in college and in the workplace, and less time on creative writing and literary analysis. In the college and in the workplace, writers need to be able to present coherent arguments in grammatical sentences, so that’s what high schools should teach.

  4. The cause is mostly the literal implementation of “No Child Left Behind” to actually mean …Pass’em no matter what so they won’t be “left behind” here to pull down our graduation rate statistics.

  5. Ricki, are you saying that the homeschoolers are required to take remedial courses automatically at your college? Or that they need to take them in order to build up adequate skills?

    If it’s the former, please share the name of your school so I can be sure to cross it off my list of potential colleges for my kids. If it’s the former, what is it that they are missing so I can avoid a similar problem. 🙂

  6. “High schools should spend more time on the writing skills needed in college and in the workplace, and less time on creative writing and literary analysis.”

    Believe me, a lot of high school English teachers agree with this and would love to do so. This year, though, we got a canned curriculum from the state. For the upcoming English II unit about folktales, the plan requires me to have these items on hand: “Art Materials: glitter, yarn, glue, markers, glue, tape, colors, felt fabric squares, clay, other textile oddities, feathers, cotton balls, sequins, construction paper, colored paper, safety pins, straight pins, etc. • poster boards • scissors • staplers • newspaper theatre or Movie ads—samples • optional: Styrofoam forms: cylinders, squares, triangles, etc. • optional: dolls, action figures, etc.”

    The students will be creating a plot for a TV show, creating a mythological figure (I don’t know why, this is folktales and we did myths in 9th grade), and re-writing a folktale from the pov of another character in the story (always a favorite). And I’m expected to foot the bill for the supplies, too. These are tenth graders.

  7. Bill Leonard says:

    Redkudu, I am astounded. In my 10th-grade public high school English class, we did a lot of writing. We also read Julius Caesar, Huckleberry Finn and The Scarlet Letter (talk about a dreary book!) among others. Admittedly, that was 50 years ago.

    Do any of the parent of your students know what is going on? Do any of them care?


  8. Arggh! And when SAT scores dropped in my town the solution proposed by one school official — make sure more kids take Honors courses. Not improve our Standard courses — have more kids take Honors! And I recently read the criteria for choosing Honors vs Standard for freshman English and the criteria for Honors were weak at best! So now the Honors criteria will be watered down even more and then we’ll wonder why so many kids need remedial courses!

    And Redkudu — I sure hope you don’t teach in my state but then again knowing how weak the curriculum in my state generally is, I’m afraid you probably do 🙁

  9. “. . .anyone who’s homeschooled has to take the remediation classes.”

    Wouldn’t that be a civil rights issue? Isn’t the school a sitting duck for a lawsuit?

    My experience, limited thought it may be, is also that homeschooled kids are better prepared than average. My experience also, unfortunately, is that the students in remedial class in my community college are usually accurately placed. For a little more about math preparation of my students see

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    Brian Rude, how do students get to take your math class without a knowledge of fractions? Doesn’t the college have a placement test that would put those students in remedial math where they belong? Is there a placement test, but one that is too forgiving?

    At the community college I sometimes take classes at, everyone has to take a placement test before enrolling in a math class.

  11. Sixty years ago, American high schools sent about 40% of their graduates on to receive a four-year bachelor’s degree. Currently, we send approximately three-quarters onto two- and four-year colleges, but still only about 40% of those earn a degree. Integral in this equation is the lack of college-readiness, and the basic skills of reading and writing are fundamental. David Connely’s book “College Knowledge” discerned the difference between college eligible and college ready, and that is a considerable part of the problem. Getting kids through high school in a system that was designed to send few on is not enough when most want to go to college. This is why Jay Matthews, in his Challenge Index, places such a huge emphasis on AP classes. He cites research that shows a student who takes one AP class in high school – even if he doesn’t pass it or the exam – has a 40% greater chance of completing college than one who doesn’t. The students who take my AP English Language class are not being forced into remedial courses in college.

    Matthews notes that “best education for the best is the best education for all.” While I somewhat disagree with him – and we have sparred on the issue of vocational education – he has a point if all our kids are going on to college. Many of them are currently wasting huge amounts of money for the gen. ed. requirements for a degree they’ll never earn. Additionally, the current college student changes his major three times and takes five and a half years to earn a four-year degree. Clearly, many students and communities have a skewed value system concerning education. One great place to start with schools is a re-emphasis on literacy at all levels. Too many schools teach reading for two grades and assign it for ten years after that. Denver area teacher/researcher Cris Tovani addresses the problems with this disconnect in her book “I Read It, but I Don’t Get It.” It should be required reading for all teachers, parents, administrators, and students.

  12. Cardinal Fang,

    That is a very good question. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought over the past year, and I don’t have a very good answer. But I do have some thoughts. A similar, and very much related question occurred to me about a year ago. How come many of the topics that I teach in college algebra are listed in various standards as topics for early high school or junior high? This occurred to me when browsing the internet one day. I had just covered slope in my lower level algebra course, and felt it had gone pretty well. Slope usually does. I think I had chanced on the California math standards on the internet, or maybe it was the NCTM standards. Anyway I noticed that slope was included in the seventh grade standards. What happened? Why am I teaching in college a concept that presumably should come much earlier?

    I think one thing that is going on is what I call a “stagnant spiral syndrome”. The “spiral” here refers to the “spiral method”, by which students return to previous topics, perhaps on a yearly basis, but take a deeper cut into the subject matter on each spiral. This idea, the “spiral method”, has been in and out of favor over the years. My view is that spiraling is inevitable in many subjects, just by the nature of the subject matter itself. I remember getting the same elementary grammar year after year in elementary school. Well, I suppose grammar should be taught every year in elementary school, and it’s probably sensible to start each year with a review of last year’s work. But if we are not careful we never go beyond last years work. We don’t make a deeper cut on each spiral, and that can be frustrating. Grammar frustrated me as a kid until I had a really good English teacher in the eighth grade who really taught us grammar.

    I suppose a stagnant spiral can happen for many reasons. I’m think it has happened in math because the “fuzzy math” or recent decades doesn’t work very well. So kids never do learn fractions, and other things, when they should.

    Is it possible to get through one course with a grade of C, while remaining seriously deficient in the prerequisites? I think it is. I think it happens all the time. I think it happens because. . . . . . . . .

    That’s a very good question. How does it happen?

    Here’s a related phenomenon. In the early 80’s I wanted to study physics. I thought maybe I could make it a career, as I really didn’t want to go back to teaching. I quizzed out of freshman physics and began taking upper level courses. I took a number of upper level courses, and I made an A in every one, but I was frustrated because I didn’t seem to learn much and I didn’t seem to understand much. How can that be? I obviously did something to make an A in each course, but it didn’t seem like I knew or understood much of anything. I still don’t understand it. But the experience does lead me to believe that a lot of students may be doing the same in math. Whatever was going on for me may be going on for a lot of others, and it’s not good.

    We do have a placement test in the community college where I teach. So far as I know it is probably pretty much like other state colleges have, though I personally have not seen it. How can students not understand fractions and yet pass a placement test to get into college algebra and then scrape by with a C? Part of the answer is that fractions are probably not on the placement test. Probably algebra is on it, and students know enough algebra to get into my algebra class. I don’t know, but I must conclude it happens. It happens all the time. I doubt if my experience is unique.

    What could cause a stagnant spiral? Perhaps it’s because students take successive math courses and somehow manage to fulfill what seem to be reasonable and valid requirements, but without understanding. They can’t understand because they lack the prerequisite understanding. But they continue to somehow fulfill what seem to be reasonable and valid requirements. They pass the tests. So the whole thing bogs down. Everyone involved is somewhat aware that it is bogging down, but no one understands it very well and everyone just wants to do their own job as well as they can.

    So I don’t have a very good answer to your very good question. But I have no doubt it is important.

  13. Rebeccat, that is unusual. My home-schooled daughter was automatically placed in Honors Writing this year as an entering Freshman at Spring Arbor U because of her ACT score on the English section (27). I was wondering if that was a mistake (I thought she was a decent writer, not outstanding.) Apparently, they knew what they were doing — she is getting straight As after 3 papers and a quiz.

  14. “Do any of the parent of your students know what is going on? Do any of them care?”

    They do now. The school didn’t make AYP last year. (I wasn’t there.) But this town has the highest poverty rate in my county. As far as parents caring, I’m sure they do, but most may not have the luxury nor necessary knowledge to speak up about it.

    The bigger problem is, the kids have been spoon-fed for so long in this district, they almost literally can’t do any work that we might consider on-level. They become openly hostile or outright non-compliant, they cannot work without talking, and the school is poorly organized for these types of problems. (It’s an enormous at-risk population for such a small school (about 1,000 kids), and little or no real at-risk intervention programs targeting the problems – just the usual high school stuff, as if we’re trying to pretend this is just how all high schools are. It’s worse here than at the 4,000 student high school I just left.) I don’t believe the kids intend to be malicious in their behavior – I believe they are honestly astonished and concerned to be confronted with what they *know* is work they should have been taught before now, and it’s scary, frustrating, and demoralizing to them. Without the social skills to communicate that, they tend to act out inappropriately instead.

  15. Sixty years ago, roughly forty percent of high school graduates went on to earn a four-year college degree. Currently, nearly three quarters of high school students go on to college, but still only 40 percent earn the degree. The predominant reason for this phenomenon is a gap in reading and writing skills. As David Connely noted in his book “College Knowledge,” there is a fundamental difference between “college eligible” and “college ready.” None of my AP Language students are being forced into remedial classes because they are prepared. However, there may be a difference in readiness, considering our one-size-fits-all education system was designed for a population that was not predominantly college-bound. For this reason, Jay Matthews of the Washington Post considers AP classes to be the most important courses schools can offer, and he bases his school ratings entirely on AP classes.

    While I disagree with some aspects of Matthews’ formula – and I’ve sparred with him on issues such as vocational education – he validly argues that a student who takes one AP course in high school – even if he doesn’t pass it or the exam – is forty percent more likely to finish college. Currently, it takes the average college student five and half years to complete a four-year degree, and that’s after changing his major three times. Clearly, there is a problem with the value some students and communities place on college readiness. For the most part, it is basic literacy that leads to much failure at the college level. One of the problems is that schools basically teach kids to read for two years and then assign reading for the next ten. Cris Tovani, a Denver-area teacher and researcher, addresses this disconnect in her book “I Read It, but I Don’t Get It.” This work should be required reading for all teachers, parents, administrators, and students.

  16. Cardinal Fang says:

    [Matthews] validly argues that a student who takes one AP course in high school – even if he doesn’t pass it or the exam – is forty percent more likely to finish college.

    And yet, as the number of students who are taking AP or IB classes has skyrocketed, has the number of students who are finishing college also gone up? Or do better students take AP courses?

  17. hmmmm…my son’s private school incorporates writing in every single class —

    Way back when I graduated from a top private high school with a strong writing program, I enrolled in a state school that required ALL freshmen to take remedial english.

    Seems to me there are two solutions — either the colleges shut up as remedial education is a revenue producer/make work for them by design. If colleges/universities were truly bothered by having to provide remedial education they should charge the school district from which the students come for the cost of remedial education.

    Do the later and changes will be made immediately. I bet you real money the madness of sending “all” kids to college will end today.

  18. Stacy in NJ says:

    What would happen if the colleges didn’t offer remedial classes? What if they used entrance exams that required basic proficiency, say the SAT?

    Perhaps, then, parents and students would demand that their high school do the job their suppose to be doing, preparing them for college, or at least the “college bound” students.

    It seems to me that 4 year colleges shouldn’t be offering remedial classes. Maybe, yes, community colleges.

    Those kids that intend to go to college and are on a college track should be leaving high school prepared. This is an obvious failure at the high school level and that’s where it should be addressed. Colleges could help by not accept poorly prepared students, leaving the high schools accountable. My guess is that they enjoy the revenue stream that the remedial classes provide.

    I think we’re depriving a lot of kids opportunites by insisting that everyone, or nearly everyone, should be college educated. There are many wonderful vocational trades that are interesting, demanding and provide a satisfying living. We need qualilty vocational training, apprentice opportunities and interships at younger ages, intergrated into schooling at the high school level.

    These kids are being ripped-off.

  19. At least the high schools and districts that handed these kids 3.0s, and even 4.0s, don’t have any responsibility to explain the situation.

  20. Fred the Fourth says:

    An old data point: When I started at Berkeley in ’74, I was startled to learn that (IIRC) 47% of incoming freshmen had to take “English P” since their abilities did not qualify them for English 1A.

  21. Lightly Seasoned says:

    AP numbers are skyrocketing because some districts see it as a solution to their problems and place all students in there instead of those who are truly ready to do the work — and I mean that motivationally more than academic skills-wise. As a result, we’re seeing the AP scores sink. Readers for the English exams this year reported a lot of blank essay books for students who were required to sit for an exam they did not want to take.

    My AP students do not take remedial courses in college. They are generally either exempted from Comp or report breezing through it — even my weak AP students (my course is open to any who care to enroll).

    In general, however, it is the stronger students who take AP.

  22. I can’t tell you how many times kids have handed me things that they clearly did not write with every expectation I would accept them and give them a good grade. And clearly, there are other teachers who do accept that stuff, and that’s why kids expect me to put up with it too.

  23. Heh,

    If college students cannot handle the 10 fractions listed on that page, perhaps they should go back to 6th grade and learn what they need to learn.

    A student cannot succeed in higher math without the basics of add, subtract, multiply, divide, percentages, and fractions. As my 9th grade algebra teacher used to say:

    “You guys and gals have no problem doing algebra, you just can’t add and subtract” 🙂

    Sad indeed

  24. But, Bill, do they teach fractions in the sixth grade any more? That is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. Of course, I’m sure they do something that can be called teaching fractions, but do they do it in an effective way? Do they give it the time it needs? Do they do it directly, or is it assumed that it will result from doing something else? Do they assign enough homework, and is it well chosen homework? Do they carefully explain both the how and the why of doing various types of problems before assigning the homework? Do they still send kids to the board for speed drills, or is that considered old fashioned and unegalitarian now days?

    I don’t have a very good idea what is taught in elementary school and high school now days. I think a few things can be taken for granted. Teachers, at all levels, have good intentions and want their students to learn. Teachers learn from their own experience, and the have the experience of others available to them in at least some forms. And teachers were students once themselves. But against this generally positive outlook we also have reason to believe that teachers get a lot of bad advice (a lot from the NCTM, which I have tried to document in my article httm:// ), and that those with experience and ability in teaching math are not very good at helping those who don’t (in my humble opinion), and that those with practical experience and ability in teaching math are not the ones teaching in ed school, and that in many situations teachers are laboring under administrative and societal and restrictions and expectations that are draining, if not actually counterproductive. The result of all this in the typical sixth grade classroom . . . . . I don’t know.

    But it is that NCTM perspective that interests me the most. In 1996, or maybe it was 1995, I wasn’t thinking anything about math. But when my daughter brought home her seventh grade math book that began to change. I discovered it had no chapter on fractions. I couldn’t figure that out, so I keep looking over a period of months and eventually wrote up my thoughts in my article “Chicago Math”, which I later put on my website. Here’s a link. httm://

    My hypothesis is that fractions are often poorly taught, which makes it hard to teach decimals well, which makes it hard to teach per cents well, which makes it hard to teach a lot of applications of arithmetic, which means arithmetic is seldom understood very well by students, which gives them a poor foundation for algebra, which means a lot of algebra must be repeated year after year, which means that I end up teaching in college algebra simple things like equation solving and the meaning of slope which presumably were covered years back. In other words we have allowed ourselves to slide into a stagnant spiral syndrome, as I have mentioned in a comment above.

    If this is what is happening it wouldn’t do much good to send them back to the sixth grade to learn what they should have learned then.

    And if this is not what is happening . . . . . . . . then what is happening?

  25. Just my two cents.

    redkudu: Well said. At-risk students do get scared, frustrated, and demoralized. It’s such a shame, because some of them are very bright with lots of potential. They tend to miss a lot of school, however, due to family problems, that they lose the thread of what’s going on, especially in math.
    Lori: My grandchildren are being homeschooled. At first I was against it, but the more I see, the more approving I have become.
    Elizabeth: Great point. I would love to see what would happen if districts had to pay for remedial education! Maybe they would even treat their teachers better.
    Brian: I agree. People who are great at math, sometimes are not the best teachers. They can’t always get down to the students’ levels and see what the student doesn’t understand. (This is not to say that there aren’t many fantastic teachers who excel in math!!)
    On the other hand, there are some excellent elementary ed teachers who really don’t get math. My sister teaches math methods for elem ed. teachers in a college, and she tells me some horror stories about the lack of knowledge some of her students have. (This is not to say that there aren’t many fantastic elem ed teachers who excel in math.!)
    Stacy: Good point about voc ed. Why does everyone need a college degree?

    I taught high school chemistry and I had some students who couldn’t add 8 plus 5 and get the right answer. I was supposed to teach them logarithms? I looked up their records and discovered they had received “A” in their last math class. But, it had been a long-term substitute teacher. Perhaps he just wanted to get everyone through. There are just so many things out of our control.

    Whew! I think that was four cents worth!