From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Monday, June 23, 2008
Study of Texas Remedial Programs Finds They Don't Help Students
By PETER SCHMIDT
A federally financed study of Texas public-college students has found little evidence that remedial programs there improve underprepared students' graduation chances or their performance in the labor market soon after college.
"If anything, we find some evidence that remediation might worsen the outcomes of some students," says a paper summarizing the findings of the study by Francisco (Paco) Martorell, an economist at the RAND Corporation, and 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.
At two-year colleges where a large proportion of students took remedial courses, those students were significantly less likely than other comparably prepared students to complete at least one year of college or earn a degree, says the paper, Help or Hindrance? The Effects of College Remediation on Academic and Labor Market Outcomes.
The researchers, whose study was financed by the U.S. Department of Education and the Smith Richardson Foundation, have presented their as-yet-unpublished findings at various academic seminars and conferences, including an Education Department conference held this month.
The findings of the Texas study contradict other research that has found remediation to have positive effects, including a 2007 study of Ohio college students and a 2006 study of community-college students in California. In their paper, Mr. Martorell and Mr. McFarlin say the differences in the various studies' results might be partly a reflection of state-by-state differences in remediation policies or the quality of remedial programs.
In an interview, however, Mr. McFarlin emphasized that his study used a much different methodology than the others done before, allowing for better "apple-to-apple" comparisons between those two- and four-year college students who took remedial classes and those who did not.
A chief obstacle faced by researchers wishing to study the effects of remediation is sampling bias. Because those college students who take remedial classes tend to be less prepared than those who go straight into regular classes, they likely would fare worse than other students in the long term regardless of whether they took remedial classes to catch up.
By examining state data on students who entered Texas public colleges in the 1990s, however, Mr. Martorell and Mr. McFarlin were able to draw comparisons between large numbers of remediated and nonremediated students who had entered college with similar skill levels.
No More Likely to Earn a Degree
A state law in place by that time—known as the Texas Academic Skills Program, or TASP—required those students pursuing academic degrees to enter remedial courses if they could not demonstrate that they were ready for college on the statewide TASP test or by posting sufficiently high scores on the SAT, the ACT, or the state's high-school exit examination. As a practical matter, however, not all students who failed the TASP test were assigned to remedial courses—some earned a reprieve, for example, by passing the test on their second try. At the same time, some students who passed the TASP test nonetheless enrolled in remedial classes, often because their advisers encouraged them to do so or because they had failed some placement examination administered by their college.
Further assisting future efforts to compare how students of similar ability fared when they did or did not get remedial courses was the state's 1995 decision to raise the minimum score needed to pass the TASP test. As a result of that change, many students who would have gone straight into academic classes if they had entered college a year earlier ended up instead taking remedial courses.
The paper says the researchers 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. Contrary to the assumption of many critics of remediation, however, they also did not find any evidence that remediation significantly extended how long it took students to earn a degree.
Based on records kept by the Texas Workforce Commission, the researchers also did not find any evidence that students who took remedial classes earned more than their nonremediated peers in the labor market up to seven years after entering college.
The researchers caution that, because their study focused on students who scored close to the remediation-placement cutoff on the TASP test, their findings may not apply to students of very low ability.
The paper also cautions that remediation may have other effects that the researchers did not study. For example, by keeping poorly prepared students out of college-level courses, remediation might help instructors keep those classes rigorous. At the same time, colleges might be paying the costs of remedial classes by draining money away from standard academic courses, hurting overall academic quality.