How to Reform Remedial Education

Policymakers, colleges, and school districts should take steps to successfully reform remedial education for recent high school graduates.

A student uses her calculator during a remedial math class in Haverhill, Massachusetts, June 2015. (Getty/Jessica Rinaldi)
A student uses her calculator during a remedial math class in Haverhill, Massachusetts, June 2015. (Getty/Jessica Rinaldi)

Last month, during a hearing before California lawmakers on the need to reform remedial education—the system that aims to ready underprepared students for college-level work—a student testified that because his test scores required him to take one year’s worth of remedial education, he would have to scramble to figure out how to pay another year’s rent, school fees, and transportation. While he completed his remedial coursework and went on to college-level work, he wanted a better system for his younger brother.

Remedial education held real promise at its origin. It served as an on-ramp to college for students who were underprepared in the subjects of reading, writing, and mathematics. In the present day, however, remedial education often acts as an exit ramp, derailing many students in need of additional academic support from ever enrolling in college courses or completing their undergraduate degree.

Remedial education is costly and ineffective

Remedial education courses often end up deflating students’ hopes of completing college and are expensive financially, costing students a whopping $1.3 billion in estimated out-of-pocket fees annually. Estimates also put the cost of delivering remedial education somewhere between $400 million and $500 million annually.

These costs are not borne equally. Proportionately higher rates of remedial education persist for certain student populations, reflecting America’s historically poor track record of providing a high-quality education to all students—otherwise known as the achievement gap. Significantly higher percentages of low-income, black, and Hispanic students enter remedial education than their white or affluent peers. The United States must double the rate of progress in graduating well-qualified high school students by 2020 in order to reclaim its position in the world as the country with the highest proportion of college graduates.

Experts suggest that the process by which students are identified for remedial education is faulty, often done through one of two placement tests taken on a single day—tests that are not aligned to any specific learning standards. These tests are not the well-known SAT or ACT, of which students have heard and are prepared to take; rather, they are the relatively obscure Accuplacer and Compass tests. Alone, these tests place up to one-third of students into remedial education, despite the fact that these students could actually pass a college-level course with at least a B. Furthermore, they solely measure academic knowledge, not attributes such as ambition, persistence, and willingness to connect and seek help, which are critical to succeeding in college, regardless of academic acumen.

Worst of all, significant data show that remedial education does not even serve its purpose. About half of students who enter remedial education never finish a remedial course, and less than a quarter enroll in college-level courses. The causes for remedial education’s ineffectiveness can be attributed to some combination of the following elements: curricula that often repeat material from high school and lack a connection to real-world experiences; course design that incorporates a typical lecture style with little individualized instruction; and a lack of supports, such as additional tutoring.

 Eliminating the need for remedial education

States can take three steps to eliminate the need for remedial education for recent high school graduates.

1. Adopt rigorous learning and testing standards

States should adopt and continuously improve rigorous learning standards—in both reading and math—and should require not fill-in-the-bubble tests, but rather aligned, high-quality tests that measure higher-order thinking skills. Most states adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010. Unlike many states, however, which either repealed or modified the standards or eliminated the tests altogether, California stuck with these standards and the aligned tests. This decision showed remarkable political steady. California students have benefited, as the state has seen among the highest jumps in academic proficiency rates since the standards were put in place. And for teachers, this decision provided consistency in the classroom, allowing them to deepen their expertise in teaching these standards.

2. Increase coordination between high school and college

States can strengthen the connections between high school and college in several ways. Rather than requiring an additional placement exam, colleges could use student scores on tests that they have already taken, such as Common Core tests like Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Both of these tests are already aligned to college expectations in reading and math.

It is critical for state policymakers, as well as administrators in colleges and school districts, to examine the profiles of students who need remediation, including their course-taking patterns. In Delaware, for instance, about half of students in the lower-level math pathway could have taken honors or Advanced Placement pathways. Furthermore, 70 percent of students in Algebra II needed college remediation, despite the fact that this class is widely considered to involve high-level math and is sufficient preparation for college-level Algebra. Delaware has a high school course rigor problem to address; to the state’s credit, its director of higher education policy has publicly recognized this issue.* School districts should align the way that fourth-year high school and first-year college courses are taught. Senior-year high school courses should require students to be independent and should offer few, if any, reminders and hand-holding.

Another area of inquiry in Delaware and other states includes understanding the profile of a student needing remediation who passed those courses on the first try.

3. Improve all aspects of remedial education

The third step includes addressing all aspects of remedial education, from placement to course design to a system of supports. When placing students into initial coursework, colleges should use multiple measures, such as those in Georgia, Tennessee, and Colorado. In addition, Georgia makes several recommendations in course design. Beginning in the 12th grade, Tennessee provides some remedial education so that students arrive to college ready for credit-bearing classes. The state has recognized that students need to figure out how to self-pace their learning—that is, be more independent in completing their coursework—before they arrive to college. Finally, Colorado included embedded supports such as tutoring, extra class time, and peer study groups as well as a shorter course sequence.


Remedial education will always be needed. Adults in a rapidly and constantly changing workforce who want to upgrade their skills for a better job may first need to brush up on the basics. However, remedial education should not be necessary for recent high school graduates. Furthermore, states need to take measures to ensure that the system is not failing at achieving its intended purpose.

Recent policy efforts in states such as California require remedial education to be eliminated quickly, and faculty charged with implementing these reforms may understandably want additional time to design the best system. However, there are appropriate and effective models that can be replicated and modified so that reforms can be done swiftly.

When working to reform remedial education, the perfect must not be the enemy of the good. There is ample evidence of what works, such as the implementation of multiple measures to assess student readiness for college-level work and the use of a corequisite model, allowing students who qualify for remedial course work to take credit-bearing courses instead, but with additional supports. Institutions implementing these types of reforms are seeing remarkable success. This success can be replicated nationwide.

*Author’s note: Delaware’s director of higher education policy made these remarks during a conference held on March 29, 2017.

Laura Jimenez is the director of standards and accountability for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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Laura Jimenez

Former Director, Standards and Accountability