The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

Letter From the Director: Responding to Research Findings on Developmental Education

A group of students take notes in class

There is growing evidence that community colleges should rethink developmental education if they want more of their students to persist and earn a credential. Studies by CCRC and others show that for large numbers of remedial students, isolating them from their peers in college-level courses and assigning multiple semesters of remediation greatly reduce their chances of completion. Studies also show that developmental education is costly; one estimate suggests that every year, students and their families pay close to $1.3 billion out-of-pocket to take remedial courses. Taxpayers also shoulder the burden when community colleges replicate courses that students should have taken and passed in high school.

The poor outcomes and high costs associated with developmental education have led some policymakers to call for its elimination, but such proposals place community colleges in a bind. Their open-access mission means that they must serve all students, but not all students are college-ready. Community colleges do not want to lower standards for so-called gateway courses (e.g., English or Math 101), but neither do they want to see large numbers of students fail. In response, many states and colleges are taking steps to try to reduce the number of students who arrive at college in need of remediation and to implement more effective ways of delivering instruction to those who do. In what follows, I point out a few good examples of how states and institutions are looking to make improvements.

For instance, a large number of states are implementing transition courses to provide additional instruction in college-level English and math skills before students complete 12th grade. A recent CCRC brief catalogs the variety of approaches being used. In some states, transition courses focus only on English and math; in others, students are also encouraged to explore careers and make plans for the future. Some programs rely on traditional classroom instruction, while others use online instruction or blended formats. Finally, some states have implemented procedures so that students who pass transition courses in high school automatically place out of developmental education in college. Transition courses make good intuitive sense, but more work is needed to find out which models work best for whom.

Another way to reduce the number of students who need developmental education is to improve the procedures used to assess students’ skills when they arrive at college. Historically, community colleges have relied on standardized tests to guide decisions on student placements in developmental education. While easy to administer, such tests do not take into account students’ motivation to learn or past performance in high school, and research by CCRC suggests that test-only procedures result in more students going into developmental education than actually need it. 

In response, some states and colleges have begun using a combination of indicators to assess students’ academic preparedness, including test scores, high school grade point averages, and noncognitive assessments. The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR)—a research partnership led by CCRC and MDRC—is currently conducting a rigorous evaluation of a multiple measures assessment system used by seven community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. Early results are encouraging: After one semester, the use of multiple measures led to fewer students placed into developmental education, and more students enrolling in and completing college-level math and English courses. CAPR researchers are continuing to track students’ academic progress and will release a report later this year that examines the longer-term effects.

Once students begin college, corequisites offer a promising strategy to improve developmental education instruction, especially for students whose assessments reveal they are just below the college level. Corequisites allow students to take gateway courses that are attached to parallel tutoring and support courses. Students get the extra assistance they need but can begin earning college credits right away. A descriptive study by CCRC of a Tennessee corequisite program found that it cost a little more to implement than the standard prerequisite approach to developmental education but ultimately was more efficient in helping students complete introductory college courses in a shorter period. Though it was not possible to isolate program differences in this study, findings from prior CCRC studies suggest that corequisite and other forms of accelerated developmental education are associated with increased enrollment in and completion of gatekeeper courses.

Finally, with leadership and assistance provided by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, many states and institutions are implementing math pathways as an alternative approach to traditional developmental and gateway math instruction. Designed for non-STEM majors, math pathways emphasize quantitative reasoning and introductory statistics rather than algebra and pre-calculus. The curricula are rigorous and offer credits that count toward college degrees.

CAPR researchers are using a random assignment study to measure the effects of the Dana Center Math Pathways (DCMP) on student outcomes at four community colleges in Texas. Students who are determined to be in need of math remediation are assigned either to a traditional developmental math program or to math pathways. A preliminary report found that students in DCMP were nearly 50% more likely to pass a college-level math course after three semesters; a final report later this year will examine DCMP’s longer-term effects.   

I have touched on some recent studies, but there is much more to say about innovations taking place and lessons being learned across the U.S. CAPR will be hosting a conference in November 2019 in New York City to discuss the latest research on developmental education reform and future directions for policy, practice, and research. State policymakers, community college leaders, and faculty are encouraged to attend. If you are not already on the CAPR mailing list, I encourage you to sign up to get our reports and the latest conference information.

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