October 24, 2019
KYLE WESTBROOK - Crain's Chicago Business
Lurking beneath the good news on annual gains in college-going rates for black and Latinx students from Chicago is a literal black hole that likely will be the place where college and career aspirations go to die: developmental or remedial education.
Every year in Illinois, tens of thousands of students will be placed into remedial courses, mostly in math and English. Once they are placed into these developmental education courses, students rarely get out. In 2016, less than 1 in 5 students who began their college careers in developmental education courses earned a degree.
In early 2019, the Partnership for College Completion released a policy brief on remediation in Illinois, reviewing publicly available data and urging a significant overhaul of the measures used to judge "college readiness," which place nearly 46 percent of all students enrolling in community college into remedial coursework. We also called for reforming the structure of remedial courses that serve few students well.
A broken remedial education system serves few students well but disproportionately underserves black and Latinx students.
In 2016, among students attending community college, 62 percent of Latinx and 71 percent of black students were placed in remediation, compared to 41 percent of white students. Larger societal inequities that result in disparate life outcomes for black and Latinx populations contribute to these inequities, but research shows that high-stakes tests like those often used for college placement exacerbate those inequities and calcify them into a student's career outcomes.
Traditionally, students placed in developmental education must successfully complete a non-credit-bearing course—which often costs as much as a credit-bearing course—before they can enroll in their gateway courses. Only four years ago, some students at one community college in Chicago had to pass up to four levels of remediation or four prerequisite courses before they could enter a college English course.
These courses consume precious financial aid dollars like Illinois Monetary Award Program funds, which every year run out before all eligible students receive an award. Last year, nearly 100,000 Illinois students were turned away for a MAP grant because the funds were depleted.
Fortunately, these types of barriers are increasingly becoming relics of the past as more institutions and state legislatures look for alternatives to fix this broken system.
States such as California and Texas have prioritized co-requisite models for remediation. In co-requisite models, students who may need remediation enroll in their credit-bearing courses while being concurrently enrolled in a course or lab that provides them with additional support. A recent report on the outcomes of California reforms shows a significant increase in black and Latinx students passing gateway courses in both math and English.
There also are signs of progress in Illinois.
In 2018, the chief academic officers and presidents of the state's community colleges adopted a recommendation that colleges use alternative placement measures to high-stakes tests, such as cumulative high school GPA, since tests like SAT and ACT have been found to be more closely correlated to a student's family income than to their likelihood of succeeding in college.
Similarly, our state's high schools are increasingly offering developmental math and English. More Illinois institutions need to follow the lead of Harper College in Palatine and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, which have successfully implemented co-requisite remediation.
Illinois leaves a lot of talent on the table when too few students succeed in college, not because of a lack of will or skill, but because the systems that are meant to serve them fail them.
Kyle Westbrook is executive director of Partnership for College Completion, a nonprofit, and has more than 20 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in public education.