Remedial Programs a Weak Spot at Community Colleges - Higher Education
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Remedial Programs a Weak Spot at Community Colleges


by Catherine Morris

022416_remedialA new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement examines weaknesses in developmental education programs at the nation’s community colleges. Developmental education has been identified as one of the barriers to improved graduation and completion rates at community colleges.

The report found that there is a mismatch between students’ self-assessment of their academic abilities and the results they get on placement exams. According to the report’s findings, 86 percent of students believe they are “ready for college,” but a full 67 percent test into developmental coursework.

Developmental, or remedial education, are courses intended to bring students up to speed, and they are not credit bearing. Some developmental sequences are three courses long, meaning that students can spend a year or more studying before they can start earning college credits.

“We know that very few students made it to a gatekeeper course, if they started [at the] lowest level of developmental education,” said Evelyn Waiwaiole, CCCSE center director.

High school performance is typically taken as an indication of college potential, but the report found that 40 percent of the students who reported an A average in high school also tested into developmental education.

“If we’re going to be serious about completion, we have to rethink and redesign how we get students ready for college-level work,” Waiwaiole said. “There isn’t a silver bullet because what we’ve been doing traditionally hasn’t worked.”

The report’s findings suggest that placement exams may not be a wholly accurate indicator of college preparedness. Only 41 percent of the students responding to the report prepared for their placement exam. Those students who do prepare for the placement exam tend to perform better.

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One institution cited in the report, Washington State Community College, in Ohio, implemented a monthly two-hour “brush-up” workshop to provide a review of basic concepts prior to students taking the exam. The college found that the workshop was not sufficient for students with the greatest need for academic support, however; so the college created a 10-week course on fundamental math and literacy. After implementing the brush-up workshop and the course, the number of students placing into developmental education lessened, particularly in English.

The mismatch between student expectations and the reality of how many place into remedial education suggests that there may be a mismatch between what students are getting out of high school and what community colleges expect in graduates.

“I see lots of community colleges really trying to bridge that gap,” Waiwaiole said. “I see them reaching down into K-12 to make sure they’re aligning curriculum. I also see a lot of community colleges working with K-12 to make sure that high school juniors are taking placement tests, so that, if there are gaps, they can be filled while they’re still in high school, and that way they begin to get [remedial education] skills before they come to community college.”

However, focusing solely on the high school population is not enough, Waiwaiole conceded. The average community college student is 29 years old, far removed from their high school years.

The silver lining is that there are a number of measures that help students move up through the developmental education ranks. The report found that measures such as advising, preparing students for the placement exam, and using such multiple measures as GPA or high school classes can determine where to place students. Although many such measures have already been implemented by individual colleges across the United States, they have not been instituted to scale.

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“Lots of colleges are doing innovative things, but the number of students who get to benefit from those innovations is not very many,” Waiwaiole said. “So what we’re hoping that colleges, or the field at large, will see [is] if we really want to change completion figures, we know many of these things work, but what we need to happen is for more students to experience them.”

Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at

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