Improving the Targeting of Treatment: Evidence from College Remediation
At an annual cost of roughly $7 billion nationally, remedial coursework is one of the single largest interventions intended to improve outcomes for underprepared college students. But like a costly medical treatment with non-trivial side effects, the value of remediation overall depends upon whether those most likely to benefit can be identified in advance. This NBER working paper uses administrative data and a rich predictive model to examine the accuracy of remedial screening tests, either instead of or in addition to using high school transcript data to determine remedial assignment. The authors find that roughly one in four test-takers in math and one in three test-takers in English are severely mis-assigned under current test-based policies, with mis-assignments to remediation much more common than mis-assignments to college-level coursework. Using high school transcript information—either instead of or in addition to test scores—could significantly reduce the prevalence of assignment errors. Further, the choice of screening device has significant implications for the racial and gender composition of both remedial and college-level courses. Finally, if institutions took account of students’ high school performance, they could remediate substantially fewer students without lowering success rates in college-level courses.
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