Who belongs in remedial courses?

Most colleges use placement tests alone — not high school grades — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns the exams aren’t accurate.

Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Reformers believe the remedial courses are part ofe problem — not poor preparation.

At one community college, high-level remedial writing students are more likely to succeed in English if they’re placed in college-level classes than in remedial courses.

About Joanne


  1. I always love the qualifier–NOT high school grades! Yes, because it makes a lot of sense to believe a grade as opposed to demonstrated ability.

    Does anyone really doubt that “succeed” means “pass” as opposed to “demonstrate college level writing ability”?

    All these people pushing for ending remediation–all they are interested in doing is giving people degrees and further devaluing a diploma.

  2. If I understood the online description, I would describe Community College of Baltimore County’s Accelerated Learning Program as a remedial course supporting concurrent enrollment in a college-level class.

  3. Perhaps this is a case where grades don’t match ability? We’ve seen that plenty of times before…


  4. Cardinal Fang says:

    I clicked the link to the study (always click the link!). In a Baltimore County community college, students who did not pass the English placement exam, but who didn’t fail badly, could choose to take regular English 101 classes combined with a tutoring class with eight students that met just after the regular class (the ALP program). These students ended up passing English 101 and English 102 at a much higher rate than similarly unprepared students who took a remedial class and then English 101. Doing remediation this way is cheaper, the paper claims.

    The paper did a lot of the analyses we’d like to see. For example, because participation in ALP was voluntary, the ALP students differed from students who took the remedial course first: ALP students were more likely to be white and more likely to be female. So the study matched ALP students with demographically-similar remedial students; the ALP students had better completion rates. However, there could be some other lurking variable (“grit,” let’s say) that caused the ALP students to choose ALP and also caused them to do better.

    Non-remedial students in the ALP classes– that is to say, qualified students taking English 101– did slightly worse in future classes than their counterparts who took classes with no ALP students. This also might be explained by a lurking variable: a sharp, on-the-ball student might want to sign up for an English 101 section that didn’t have remedial students in it.

  5. And the problem with this is …what? The college knows what students will need in the college level courses. If students do not have the background preparation, they need remediation. Just because a student has a grade for some high school work doesn’t mean the student is ready. Should the college keep passing the student like the high school did? No.

    • Cardinal Fang says:

      The problems with remedial courses are many. Some students who fail placement tests might not need remediation, particularly older students in math who could do fine with a quick refresher instead of one or two full-term math courses. Joanne has previously posted links to studies that showed students who failed placement tests, but nevertheless for one reason or another took the college-level courses, did no worse than their peers. And, for students who do need remediation, we don’t have a good understanding of how to go about delivering it. We’d like to get underprepared students into regular college-level courses as soon as possible, but we don’t want to set them up for failure.

      This study Joanne cites, where some remedial students are put in regular English classes but with extra help, looks like a promising approach for some students.

      • Cardinal Fang,

        Thanks for actually reading the study, giving some useful, relevant information, and presenting a more nuanced analysis… if only there were an education blogger who who take the time to present a balanced case, but I mean, whomever could do such a thing… I mean, I have this name on the tip of my tongue…. mmmm…..

      • But it’s a bad option for the qualified students stuck in these classes with the unqualified ones. At best, they are wasting part of their time in the classroom and being used as unpaid teachers, and at worst they are finishing the course with a good grade but without having learned everything they should.

        Being stuck in such a class would certainly have reduced my chances of graduating from *that* institution – because I would have learned that I was in a college that would take my money, deliberately fail to deliver the full educational experience, and try to exploit me as unpaid labor. (That’s “try” because I’m somewhat autistic and utterly unable to teach anyone who doesn’t catch on quickly – so pushing me into tutoring is even worse for the remedial student than me.)

  6. Presumably, most kids going directly from HS to a 4-year college have taken the SAT/ACT. Do scores above a certain level on the verbal sections move kids directly into non-remedial levels? I think that was true for my older kids (or the placement exam was of such little concern that I never heard there was one) and my youngest used her AP score.

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    Whether students have to take placement tests depends on the 4-year school. Just as an example, students who attend California state colleges (the Cal States, not University of California or California community colleges) have to take an English placement test unless they got a 500 or better on the reading SAT, a 3 or better on the AP exam or a 22 or better on the ACT.

  8. Momof4,

    Back in 1981, I was required to take math and english placement exams, and the score indicated that I could take and pass English 101/102 and handle calculus. The scores from my placement exams matched what I scored on the ACT, and English was my weakest subject in high school.

    Of course, back then, a grade of “C” would more than likely earn a student today a “B” or even an “A” with grade inflation.

    Placement exams are a valid tool to determine how well a student will do in entry level coursework, which is core to every degree program that a credentialed college offers. Of course, if the student can get a 3-5 on the AP for english, they’re usually given a pass on English 101, but in recent years, most colleges only accept scores of 4 and 5 for earning credit.

    There is also CLEP exams for people who want to test out of material they know well, but most colleges limit the number of credits that can be earned this way to no more than 30-32 credit hours, usually in lower division courses.