Somewhere Along the Line

New study explores what a student's entry point into remedial pipeline can tell educators about his or her chance of success.
October 22, 2010

The outcomes of community college students largely depend on where they enter remedial writing and mathematics sequences, according to a new comprehensive study of developmental education at California’s two-year institutions.

The report, commissioned by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and produced by the California-based nonprofit EdSource, looked at the demographics and academic progress of students who entered the state’s community colleges in fall 2002 and enrolled in at least one remedial writing or mathematics course between then and spring 2009. The particular focus on California is relevant, the report’s authors say, because student success in the state — purely because of its size and growth rate — is key in meeting the Obama administration’s goal of having the U.S.

Photo: EdSource

once again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates by 2020.

A greater share of students who began at higher levels of remediation — in other words, those levels closest to “college-ready” — were “of traditional college age when they entered community college,” and they “aspired to more ambitious academic goals,” “enrolled full time during their first year,” “completed college-level coursework beyond the [remediation] sequence,” and “transferred or completed a degree or certificate.”

At the other end of the spectrum, few students who began at the lower levels of remediation “completed the last course in the remedial sequence or beyond.” Black and Hispanic students “were overrepresented” in these lower levels.

Peter Riley Bahr, who contracted with EdSource to conduct the study and is professor at the University of Michigan’s Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education, analyzed the course-taking behavior of students in these remedial courses and found correlations with the students’ academic progress. He found that, all other things being equal, remedial writing and mathematics students were more apt to earn a credential or transfer to a four-year institution if they did the following:

  • Enrolled full time (taking more than 12 units during their first year).
  • Began the needed remedial sequence during their first year of attendance.
  • Passed their initial remedial course on their first attempt.
  • Enrolled in a remedial sequence continuously after they start.
  • Had fewer course levels to get through between their starting point and the college level.

This kind of information, the report’s authors argue, has policy implications for leaders in California. Chiefly, the authors suggest that state education leaders push to standardize academic expectations for community colleges and adopt a common system of student assessment. For example, they applaud the 30 or so California community colleges that currently participate in the state’s Early Assessment Program, a series of tests created by the California State University System that are given to high school juniors identifying “their readiness for college-level classes in English and math.” Pinpointing remediation needs early gives these students a better chance of entering a two-year institution "college ready."

Additionally, the report’s authors recommend that colleges tweak their course schedules so that remedial sequences can be offered to students “continuously, without interruption.” This would help students spend less time in remediation and therefore improve their chances of success.

In discussing ways to diminish student time in remediation, the report cites the recent work of Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University Teachers College, who argues that, by and large, “the distinction between developmental and nondevelopmental students is arbitrary.” This being the case, Bailey holds that a score on a placement test that is slightly above or below the

Photo: EdSource

college-level cut score “need not justify an entirely different entry point into the curriculum.” In cases where a student scores slightly below the cut score, the logic goes, it might not be in his or her best interest to enter a remedial course if it means an increased chance of dropping out.

Many new ways of thinking about remediation, similar to the arguments found in this EdSource paper, were discussed late last month at the National Center for Postsecondary Research’s Developmental Education Conference. Bailey, who also directs this organization, told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that identifying the precise moment at which students drop out of the remedial sequence is important to making developmental education more effective in readying students for college-level work.

And though researchers have identified some models and policy recommendations that are improving the success of remedial students in small numbers, Bailey acknowledged that he and others are still searching for methods that can be brought to scale and “move the needle” in a substantive way.

“We are getting some results that suggest initiatives that can improve student outcomes, but they aren’t bringing us the type of sea change or significant improvements we’d like to see,” Bailey said. “Still, one reason I’m optimistic is at least we have much clearer idea of the problems out there. Getting a better picture of that is the only way to find a solution.”


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