The Dark Underbelly of School Remediation

Too often, we hear calls for research-based remediation for struggling schools and students. And too often, these are the students and schools that are in low-income, struggling neighborhoods.


3 min read
The Dark Underbelly of School Remediation

Too often, we hear calls for research-based remediation for struggling schools and students. And too often, these are the students and schools that are in low-income, struggling neighborhoods. Educational disparities, typically in the form of low standardized test scores, expose the reality for many students who fail to excel academically. Commonly, for these students, by the time they reach 8th grade, they are three to four grade levels behind in reading. Revisit these same children three years later, and there’s a greater than average chance they have dropped out of school. There is no question these students need help. But instead of getting the support they need, they are frequently shuttled through a system that drags them further behind, adding to their dwindling sense of self and purpose.

Here is what happens typically to such a student:

  1. The student scores poorly on standardized assessment.
  2. The student is also in a school that has a significant percentage of students that score poorly.
  3. The school reports scores to their state department of education. The state requires the school to raise its test scores within a year.
  4. The school picks from a list of approved “best practices” programs and received state funding to implement the curriculum.
  5. The program is a set of online software developed by an educational tech company that has successfully lobbied the state for inclusion into their approved list.
  6. The school makes a list of all students scoring below a certain percentile on the standardized reading exam. The student is pulled from their electives to attend daily sessions on the approved software program.
  7. The student spends one hour a day in an automated online program that gives them a series of multiple-choice questions about short pieces of text.
  8. After several months, the school issues the standardized test again. The student shows a small gain, even though they are still struggling in their content classes. The school administration sees the program as a success and keeps the student in the program.
  9. After a year, the student moves on to high school, where they continue to struggle in core classes. They become frustrated and eventually drop out.

So why didn’t the remediation program help? Through a series of poor choices, the state and the student’s school have let the student down. First of all, identifying struggling students via standardized assessments have proven to be less than accurate in targeting educational gaps. Using test scores as the prime measurement of learning drives all subsequent interventions towards raising these inaccurate measurements. Educational companies are aware of this, for if they tailor their products towards such gains, they can win valuable contracts with states and districts. (Ed-tech companies in the US made a record 1.7 billion in 2019.)

Political advocates that demand more testing, more accountability, more top-down mandated programs yell the loudest while ed-tech companies amass billions, and the students left behind retreat in silence.

Another onerous practice is taking the struggling student out of courses and activities deemed unnecessary due to the content’s absence on standardized exams. But these courses are often those things that keep struggling students in school. Also, electives often reinforce skills in math and reading, which struggling students need. Most importantly, struggling students’ segregation and exclusion amplifies negative self-beliefs, causing a vicious cycle of low expectations and low achievement.

While these negative impacts may be evident to educators, the reality of test score growth quickly erases all concerns. Programs designed to raise test scores do raise test scores. By replicating the format and content specifically in standardized tests, programs can efficiently lead to rapid student test performance changes. But, if this is not paired with the long term academic growth in coursework, the test score only serves to distract well-meaning educators and administrators. States reinforce the central importance of test scores by rewarding or punishing schools based on these scores alone (even going so far as to base teacher salary on test scores.) Rapid growth in test scores is the prime objective.

Once the student exits the program (either by moving to a different school or the school losing the program’s funding), the academic struggle continues. The student’s problems with reading and numeracy were never really addressed, so the problems persist. The student sees themselves as a failure and acts out in class. Perceiving poor grades as a reflection of a student’s lack of motivation causes the school to see the academic loss as the student’s fault rather than the consequence of bad bureaucratic choices.

The sad and frustrating part of this whole story is that schools are never addressing the real causes of failure, and the system continues in its faulty design. In the end, students’ subsequent academic failure is seen not as a repudiation of harmful remediation practices but as a JUSTIFICATION for them. Political advocates that demand more testing, more accountability, more top-down mandated programs yell the loudest while ed-tech companies amass billions, and the students left behind retreat in silence.

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