One-third of community college students ‘misdirected’ to remedial classes

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According to new research, one-third of community college students enrolled in remedial coursework don’t even need them.

The Community College Research Center (CCRC) and social policy researcher MDRC recently released a research guide, “Toward Better College Course Placement,” revealing standard placement tests, such as the College Board’s ACCUPLACER, are actually “misdirecting” student placements.

This is important to note as a disparate number of African American students are placed in remedial courses. A 2016 report by the American Center for Progress placed the rate at 56 percent of African American students versus 35 percent of Whites. Another report, by inewsource/Hechinger Report, shows African American students are five times as likely to end up in the lowest level of remedial English coursework.

Under-placement creates additional barriers for students who are now required to pay for coursework with no credit. A 2016 report by the Education Reform Now showed that remedial coursework cost first-year students and their families nearly $1.5 billion a year in out-of-pocket expenses — expenses that don’t go towards their degrees.

In addition, many students never make it out of the remedial pipeline, having to take up to four non-credit-earning courses before putting a dent in their college requirements.

To address such under-placements, the CCRC and MDRC launched the pilot Multiple Measures Assessment (MMA) project in the fall of 2016, exploring alternative assessment options to determine whether students have been “misdirected” to remedial reading, math and English coursework. Their research guide follows the project’s partnership with 10 Minnesota and Wisconsin community colleges to design and pilot the new placement systems.


“Developmental education requires student time and expense, it may discourage some potential college students.”


By the summer of 2017, the organizations found that, while 60 percent of students are required to take developmental (remedial) education courses, one in three could be considered for traditional courses if testing is combined with other assessment tools, such as ACT Engage or the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory.

“There is strong empirical evidence that high school grade point average (GPA) is one of the best predictors of college success,” the researchers wrote. The report also noted that, while not as strong a predictor, non-cognitive measures, such as attendance, participation and problem-solving skills, should also be considered as influences.

“Improving placement testing by integrating a multiple measures approach seeks to place students at a level at which they can succeed without diverting them into unnecessary courses that delay or even derail their progress,” said Gordon L. Berlin, MDRC president.

The guide notes the project’s goal is to redirect students who could fare well. “Students who need developmental education to succeed in college-level courses should be placed into developmental courses,” wrote researchers.

The report also acknowledges “practitioners may be hesitant to change their current practices, skeptical about the measures used, or unsure where to start.” It outlines several recommendations and examples to encourage college administrators to consider alternative placement options.

“Because developmental education requires student time and expense, it may discourage some potential college students. It is important to ensure that those who could succeed in college-level courses get the opportunity to take them upon entry into college,” concluded the report. “The use of an MMA placement strategy should increase the chances that students will be optimally placed, which should then increase their chances of future success.”

Minnesota is already on-board to adapt new changes. The state legislature passed legislation in 2017 requiring the Minnesota State Board of Trustees (MSBT) to reform developmental education offerings at system campuses. The MSBT is required to implement system-wide multiple measures placement guidelines by the start of the 2020- 2021 academic year.

Some changes have already been implemented, including updates to the ACCUPLACER exam to provide a weighted score that could potentially boost student scores just below the college-level cut score along with ACCUPLACER exam waivers for students whose ACT, SAT, or Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) scores demonstrate college readiness.

The project’s next phase is to conduct a “randomized controlled trial of multiple measures assessment in five of the pilot colleges” to determine coursework completion rates of students moved to college-level courses. The MMA project is also now exploring new placement assessments at colleges within the State University of New York system.

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