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Monday, August 4, 2008
Don't Count on Remedial Programs to Help Minority Students Catch Up
Based on examinations of the long-term educational success of students who entered college with comparable levels of academic preparation, both studies found that going through remedial programs really does not make much of a difference. Students who were thrown straight into regular academic classes where they were likely to feel over their heads were about as likely as students in remedial classes to achieve key educational goals such as earning a four-year degree.
The studies, discussed here in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, focus on students who were at or near the cut-off for assignment to remedial education programs. In doing so, they avoid a conundrum that has undermined several other similar studies: Simply comparing the academic fates of all students in remedial programs with those of all students not in such programs is unfair to the programs themselves, because most members of the first group enter college in much worse shape than most members of the second.
Such a research approach had one key drawback: It prevented the researchers from determining whether remedial classes help those students who enter college so academically unprepared they stand virtually no chance of going straight into regular academic classes.
Moreover, because the studies use statewide data and base their conclusions on average performance levels for the different populations studied, they likely obscure substantial variation in the quality of remedial programs. Their conclusions that remedial programs do not make much difference is likely based on data from some programs that actually do help students, as well as some programs that do harm.
One of the studies, of nearly 100,000 Florida community-college students, was conducted by Bridget Terry Long, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University, and Juan Carlos Calcagno, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College. Among its findings, it concluded that students who took remedial classes ended up earning more credits over all, but not significantly more credits that were college-level.
The second study, based on Texas data, was conducted by Isaac McFarlin Jr., a research scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas and a visiting scholar at the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Francisco (Paco) Martorell, an associate economist at the RAND Corporation. It did not find any evidence that students who took remedial reading or mathematics classes were more likely to earn a college degree than comparably prepared students who went straight into academic classes.
In a third study discussed in the same Chronicle article, Ms. Long and Eric P. Bettinger, an associate professor of economics at Case Western Reserve University, tracked the long-term progress of 28,000 Ohio college students and actually did find benefits from participation in remedial classes. Ms. Long told the Chronicle that the discrepancies between the Ohio study and the others may be due to the narrower subset of the population that the Ohio study covered. It was limited to traditional-age, full-time students who had taken the ACT and either attended a four-year college or indicated on their application to a two-year institution that they planned to complete a four-year degree. The bottom-line conclusions she derived from both of her studies, as well as the Florida research, was that the effect of college remedial programs on most students "is either slightly positive, slightly negative, or zero."