An Interview with Kathy Hughes: Is Remedial Education Always Necessary?

School Days,

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) First of all, nationwide, how many students are placed in developmental or remedial classes a year, and what is this placement based on?

To begin, community colleges are faced with the daunting task of placing millions of students each year. For a large portion of these students, assessments are an effective tool for placement. However, this research found that there is room for improvement in some areas.

Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS), using a sample of traditional college-aged students, shows that 58 percent of students who attended a community college took at least one remedial course, while 44 percent took between one and three remedial courses, and 14 percent took more than three such courses.

We also know that some students who take placement tests and are advised to take remedial courses do not actually enroll in them but either manage to skip them and go on to other coursework, or they do not enroll in the institution at all.

Placement is based on how students do on standardized tests; most community colleges use the COMPASS or the ACCUPLACER.

The figures are lower for students attending four-year colleges, but that is also because some states mandate that students who need remedial classes attend community colleges.

2) Some students have true deficiencies in math, others in reading, others in spelling, and others in writing. How does a community college determine who should be taking developmental math, for instance?

Students are given standardized tests. Usually they must take three different tests: math, reading, and writing.
 3) Now, let’s talk reading- We all know that to succeed in MOST colleges, a good deal of reading is required- yet students in the current generation grow up playing video games, watching movies, and listening to Heavy Metal or Light Metal or whatever. Can you differentiate between a student who needs specific reading comprehension skills versus a student who has a learning disability in reading?

A new book was just released called “Academically Adrift”; one of the interesting findings is the low amount of reading and writing college students actually do.

In any case, I’m not an expert on learning disabilities, but one problem is that the most commonly-used tests are not diagnostic and so do not specify which particular skills any particular student needs. The tests yield one score, and the institutions must have set a cut score by which students are assigned to either college-level or below college-level.

 4) I have to stand up for a minute and talk about what I have been hearing for more than 25 years—the lack of writing skills. How do you assess writing skills and term paper skills? And then what should be done about students with weak grammar, syntax, spelling, run on sentences, poor sentence structure, incorrect tense and other problems?

The writing assessments do involve actual writing but again do not hone in on which particular areas students are either strong or weak in, to inform instructors which areas to work on.

 5) Almost all colleges require a large amount of writing- essays, book reports, term papers etc. Yet, the vast majority of high schools ( yes, I am making a generalization here) do not prepare students to do extensive writing and library research. What have you found and what should be done and what message do high school teachers and principals need to hear?

Coming back to the book “Academically Adrift” by Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum, it is quite interesting in dispelling some of our commonly-held assumptions about what students do and learn in higher education.

5) Now, some individuals graduate high school, serve their country in the armed forces for years, then return to attend college. How should they be evaluated, and are their skills weak or have they deteriorated?

All incoming community college students are given the assessments I’ve mentioned; it doesn’t matter if they’re coming straight from college or have been out of school for several years. This is one of the limitations of the current system of assessment — the tests cannot tell whether students have learned the material but forgot it and simply need a brief refresher, or if they’ve never learned or understood the material and need a year-long course.
8) What have I neglected to ask?

An important question is, what happens to the students who are assigned to remediation by these tests? In general, they have a much lower chance of ever graduating. While we need to address this problem by looking at remedial content and instruction, we must also look at improving the assessment process.

In the absence of major reform of the assessment and placement process, what our research suggests in that high schools should have as a major aim to help their students pass the college assessments. But, high schools are usually focused on preparing students to pass their state high school exit exams, and those exams may not be aligned with the college tests.

 9) How can people get a copy of this report and how would you summarize the report?

Used with the permission of