The following interview is with Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States and author of their recent report, “A Cure for Remedial Reporting Chaos,” examining the value of national college preparedness standardization as a mechanism to overcome some of the major issues surrounding remedial college education. In this interview, Fulton discusses some of the recommendations made in the paper and shares her thoughts on the steps needed to improve remedial education in the United States.
1. One of the major critiques facing remedial education — leading it to become voluntary for certain student groups in Florida — is that the courses are expensive and, since they are noncredit, do not directly contribute to degree completion. What’s your perspective on that critique?
It’s true that students spend their tuition dollars on remedial courses that don’t count toward a degree and the problem is actually worse for students who have to take multiple semesters of remediation. While some state programs might allow students to use financial aid dollars to cover remedial courses, federal aid dollars cannot be used for courses that don’t count toward a degree. Sometimes this financial burden can actually delay or even end a student’s college career. Remedial courses aren’t necessarily more expensive than credit-bearing courses, but a lot of policy and education leaders consider them an unnecessary expense because students should have acquired these skills before they arrive on campus.
In response, that’s why we’re seeing a lot of states and postsecondary systems pursuing remedial reforms that accelerate student progress to save them time and money and to improve their chances of earning a degree.
2. In “A Cure for Remedial Reporting Chaos,” one of the recommendations made suggested that states need to develop and implement common metrics for placement into — and success in — remedial education. What would be the impact of this?
Our analysis uncovered the inconsistencies in remedial data that states publicly report. We have some states like Colorado, Nevada and Texas that publish comprehensive reports. They’re annual and they include information on student placement, student characteristics, outcomes and even costs. In these states, the data has helped spur statewide reforms to remedial instruction and they also provide some very valuable information back to high schools regarding their graduates’ needs for [future] education. This has helped reduce remedial rates in the first place.
Some states are at a disadvantage if they don’t provide that comprehensive information. Some don’t even appear to provide information to the public to begin with. You see the difference when you do have this information available, especially on a regular basis, how this can lead to reforms driven, in part at least, by data.
3. The paper also recommended that states create “a dynamic, comprehensive measurement methodology” that focuses on progress and success. What are the problems with the current measurement methodology, which focuses on state-level accountability and comparative rankings?
Along with several experts, we designed a methodology called common framework. [It’s] a more consistent and innovative model to report remedial data which really doesn’t exist today. Most of it is driven by what the state is doing versus a national model. Part of what we’re proposing is giving states a guide they might use to collect and report on remedial education.
The framework is not intended to rank states based on, for example, the number of students identified in remediation or to be used for a blunt accountability instrument. Rather, the framework would allow states to group students by academic performance quartiles and track the progress of all students.
This is essential if we’re going to improve student results. At best, most states might know the number of students assigned to or enrolled in remedial education, but they don’t follow that beyond those points.
4. How is the lack of a nation-wide common approach to remedial education actually harming students?
Part of it is because of the inconsistency in the data that’s reported as well as how we even determine that remediation rate. We don’t really understand the extent of and the nuances of remedial education, we can’t get a sense of some of the strategies that could improve student success nor can we evaluate some of those reforms without some of that better data. [Right now], we can’t have a national conversation about ways to improve student learning.
5. Is there anything at the funding level that states could do to help students trying to access higher education but who don’t have the base level of knowledge needed?
There are some state programs that could allow some support for remedial courses, but the real issue is trying to intervene early. You see some states offering either intervention in high school to try to reduce the remedial rates or summer bridge programs that are completely or partially supported by institutions, systems or states to get the student before they arrive on campus.
We see some other efforts where they’re giving students a greater advanced notice or a couple of tries or some tutoring instead of students just showing up on campus, taking an exam that they maybe didn’t even know about and being placed in remedial courses. Whatever we can do even on that front end to not have students be placed unnecessarily in remediation is going to be a way to save time and money.
This interview has been edited for length.
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- The inconsistency of remedial education data across the United States makes it difficult to assess the successes and failings of remedial programming.
- Colorado, Nevada and Texas are leading the way in terms of having a robust remedial education reporting model that provides insights into where improvements can be made.
- Sweeping, nationwide improvements to remedial education will improve access to, and success in, postsecondary education.
The ECS published two papers on remedial education that are available for further reading, “A Cure for Remedial Reporting Chaos,” and “A Common Framework for Remedial Reporting: Response to Remedial Reporting Task Force Recommendations.”
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