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The Answer Sheet: How College Remediation Rates are Distorted - And Why

(AP Photo/The Sentinel, Dennis R.J. Geppert)

Are a large percentage of high school graduates so unprepared for college when they get there that they have to take remedial courses to catch up? School reformers like to say so, and throw out big percentages of students who are said to need remediation. But where do these figures come from, and are they accurate? Award-winning Prinicipal Carol Burris of South Side High School in New York  looks at this issue in the following post.

Burris has been exposing the problems with New York’s botched school reform effort for a long time on this blog. (You can read some of her work here, herehere,  here, andhere.) She previously wrote about remediation rates here. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and in 2010,  tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State.


By Carol Burris

College remediation rates are used to justify the need for the Common Core. For diehard reformers, the lack of “rigorous standards” is res ipsa loquitur –the culpability is such that one can disregard the other possible contributing factors that result in student remediation.

The argument is both political and simplistic. It is political because time and again the facts about college remediation are distorted or framed to cause maximum alarm. It is simplistic because it fails to acknowledge the complexity of the problem, seeing college remediation solely as a function of inadequate high school preparation.

Let’s begin with how reformers distort the facts. Here is one example. According to Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the following in Massachusetts earlier this year:

 “The secretary [Duncan] offered this sobering statistic to underscore his point: “Forty percent of your high-school graduates are taking remedial classes when they go to four-year universities. That’s a staggering number… Four in 10 of your high school graduates aren’t ready for college.”

 Yet, according to the state of Massachusetts, 22 percent of students in four-year, public state universities take remedial courses, and that does not include the 30 percent of graduates who attend private, four-year colleges that traditionally have lower remediation rates. A full discussion of Duncan’s outlandish claim can be found here.

Duncan is not alone. Duringa discussion of the Common Core on NPR, Achieve President Michael Cohen echoed the 40 percent remediation rate, claiming it to be a national figure for all college-going students. The “40 percent” figure also appeared in an article in the Huffington Post — one that oddly does not list an author. That article attributes the figure to an organization called Complete College America, which lists as its first solution to decrease remediation the adoption and implementation of the Common Core. Complete College America is a non-profit think tank that appears to be closely aligned with the National Governors Association (NGA), one of the lead organizations in the Core’s development.

On Page 8 of this NGA document, the following claim is made:

 …approximately 40 percent of all students and 61 percent of students who begin in community colleges enroll in a remedial education course at a cost to states of $1 billion a year.

Really? The U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics report (NCES) puts the latest figure of the overall remediation rate for first-year college students at 20 percent.

So where did Complete College America get its information?  According to a footnote in the report with its solutions to decreasing remediation, the information came from a 2011 report by another think tank, called The Alliance for Excellent Education, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the other usual reform think tank donors. The first page of the 2011 report says: “Roughly one out of every three students entering postsecondary education will have to take at least one remedial course.”  They are likely not “roughing down” so let’s read that as slightly below 33 percent.

Now here is what they say about the college remediation rate on Page 3 of the very same report:

 Nationwide, about 40 percent of all first-year students will need remedial education before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses.

Mama mia, roll out the National Guard! In the time that it took the authors to write two pages, the college remediation rate jumped over 7 percent. And where does this think tank get its figures? They come from their own “powerstats” study using 2008 NCES data on post-secondary student aid. Why didn’t they just use the remediation rates that NCES provides?

In summary, this is what appears to have occurred. One think tank created the 40 percent remediation rate with a “powerstats” program that was so powerful it raised the remediation rate from less than 33 percent to 40 percent in a few minutes. The 40 percent then made its way into another think tank’s report, which was picked up by a nameless author who posted it on the Huffington Post.

A few years later, in his zeal for supporting the expansion of charter schools in Boston, Duncan further inflates the rate by telling the people of Massachusetts that 40 percent of their graduates need remediation when they attend four-year universities. These fabrications and misrepresentations of facts occur, in my opinion, because there are so many  “think tanks” that churn out facts that are never checked. They are published in glossy brochures designed to produce alarm. If there were not crises, why would their donors continue to support them?

Here is another example. In 2010, the New York State Education Department under then Commissioner David Steiner did a presentation on remediation in New York. You canfind it here.   The report was well done. It defined who was included (first-time students), as well as other relevant information such as student ages, SAT scores and grade point averages. Slide Number 5 presents the overview on a 100-point vertical axis and gives precise values for the latest year  at that time, 2007.

Now look at the 2013 college remediation report under the present commissioner, John B. King. Slide 3 presents the overview. The vertical axis is now 60 points, which makes the rates appear higher than they are, and no precise values are given. In fact, the 2007 rate for community colleges, which we know was 44 percent from Steiner’s slides, appears to be 48 percent on the recent report. All of the detail and nuance are gone. The slide is now couched in others that promote the Regents reform agenda and standardized testing.

Do not misunderstand. The rate of remediation, particularly in our community colleges, is a serious concern. We are experiencing the tension between the generous impulse to allow anyone (including those who do not have a high school diploma) to attend college, and their preparedness in the eyes of the colleges. Taxpayers bear much of the cost. Ironically, those remediation rates have always been high, however now they are perceived as a “crisis.”

In addition, we do not have common agreement regarding whom we should include in the data, how we decide who needs remediation, and what courses we should include when we report remediation numbers.

Remediation is complicated, and I will blog more about it this summer. No matter how serious a problem it may be, however, it is wrong to inflate remediation numbers and then use them to justify everything from charter schools to the Common Core. Every time we pose simplistic solutions, we avoid deeply engaging in resolving problems that require a multiplicity of efforts and shared responsibility. Every time we make the data up or distort it, we demean the importance of what we hope to accomplish.

I used to shake my head when contemplating some of the corporate reform nonsense and say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” I don’t say that anymore, for I have learned that in the layer upon layer of reform think tanks, making it up is common practice.


[1] I repeatedly asked Lehigh to correct the facts. Although he assured me he would, the correction never occurred despite the evidence.

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Carol C. Burris

Carol Corbett Burris became Executive Director of the Network for Public Education Foundation in August 2015, after serving as principal of South Side High School...

Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.