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Developmental Education: An Introduction for Policymakers

By: Elizabeth Ganga, Amy Mazzariello & Nikki Edgecombe
Developmental Education: An Introduction for Policymakers

Developmental, or remedial, education courses are designed to develop the reading, writing, or math skills of students who are deemed—usually through standardized tests—underprepared for college-level courses. Offering these noncredit courses allows community colleges and less selective four-year colleges to open their doors to students who might otherwise be shut out of higher education. Millions of students—disproportionately students of color, adults, first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds—enroll in developmental education at two- and four-year colleges. They include students who did not receive an adequate academic foundation in high school and those who have been out of school for years and need a math or English refresher. Although colleges have offered developmental education programs for decades, state policymakers have begun to pay more attention to the growing data that show the weaknesses of developmental education and its impact on college completion, workforce development and equity goals.

The goal of developmental education is to improve students’ skills to increase their chances of success in a credit-bearing, college-level program. However, barriers on campus and in federal, state, and institutional policies can slow students’ progress toward a degree, which has long-term implications for students and states. This ECS/CAPR brief discusses the importance of and challenges surrounding developmental education and suggests ways in which policymakers can address these challenges.

In July 2018, a change was made to page 4 of this brief to correct the reported findings of a study on severe error rates associated with using standardized assessments to place students into either developmental or college-level courses. The study estimated that 29 percent of students were severely underplaced into developmental English and that 18 percent of students were severely underplaced into developmental math. Counting both these underplacements as well as overplacements into college-level courses that students would likely fail, 33 percent and 24 percent of students were estimated to be severely misplaced in English and math respectively.