Experiencing Developmental Education

Colleges are working to improve remedial education -- and have found success in doing so -- but have yet to introduce promising reforms at a large scale, finds new report.

February 23, 2016

Remediation can be a barrier to completion, which is one reason why colleges and policy makers have spent the past decade experimenting with the best ways to reform developmental education.

Those reforms have taken various shapes across the country, but a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement explores what the typical community college student experiences in being assessed for remedial needs, being placed in the courses and taking them.

Most students aren't prepared for college-level work, the report found. And they aren't successful in developmental courses, either. Students' perceptions of where they stand academically also are askew, with many believing they are prepared for college-level work when they're not.

The report also highlights successful developmental education approaches at a number of different community colleges. For instance, North Carolina's Davidson County Community College uses multiple measures to determine students' readiness for college-level work. Davidson examines high school transcripts, college placement exams and whether students have earned previous college credit.

More widespread remedial reforms like the one at Davidson, the center said, could improve overall graduation rates, which have remained stagnant.

Evelyn Waiwaiole, the center's director, said redesigning the developmental pathway for all students needs to be an urgent priority for colleges.

"We've been doing a lot of good things, but the data hasn't changed that much," she said, adding that only 39 percent of students earn a degree or certificate within six years. "That's where we can have an effect. We have to think about designing for scale, and this whole report is about the typical student experience …. How do we change it so more students have these experiences that will have positive outcomes?"

Waiwaiole said that means changing the role of advisers and making sure students receive the right information, because they often come into college with unclear perceptions and expectations.

The report found that most faculty members use an early assessment to determine their students' preparedness. But after finding their students underprepared, only 6 percent recommend that they change courses. Few students also reported that advisers helped them set their academic goals -- 44 percent reported that they received help from advisers.

Many students don't have an accurate sense of whether or not they are ready for college-level courses. The report, for instance, found that 86 percent of students believe they are academically prepared for college, but 67 percent test into developmental course work. Even many high-performing high school students require remediation -- the report found that 40 percent of students who reported receiving a high school grade point average that equaled an A minus were placed into developmental courses.

The center analyzed survey information from more than 70,000 community college students at 150 institutions to develop the report, which the center releases annually, as well as from 4,500 faculty members at 56 community colleges.

Researchers are learning that students who slightly miss cut scores on placement tests can do fine in gatekeeper courses, Waiwaiole said, adding that corequisite developmental reforms work well for those students. That form of developmental education places students with remedial needs in gatekeeper math and English courses, but adds additional supports for those students.

The CCCSE report found that students who took a corequisite course were more engaged learners, which means they're more likely to be successful in college, Waiwaiole said. However, the actual number of students who participated in corequisite courses varied from college to college. For instance, 40 percent of the surveyed students who were advised to take a developmental course and enrolled said they participated in a corequisite English course offered at their college. Even fewer -- 31 percent -- participated in a math corequisite course.

Yet those students who participated reported being more active learners, engaging more with faculty and putting in more effort, according to the report.

Last month Complete College America, a nonprofit group that receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, found dramatic increases in students who completed college-level courses using the corequisite model -- an approach the organization advocates.

"We designed the pilots and we design small, but we're just learning about the positive impacts of these types of corequisite models," Waiwaiole said. "It's time to say no to more pilots. Let's go big."

Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University, said most colleges don't have the resources to scale up the different developmental reform approaches that are happening on a smaller scale in pilot programs across the country.

"It's hard. Right now we have a system that doesn't work very well where students are given a placement test of varying quality, and institutions set a cut score, usually not using any scientific basis for that cut score," he said. "And based on which side students fall, they're placed in remedial courses mostly taught by adjuncts who have no idea how to teach a diverse group of students. That's a tremendously efficient model and it doesn't work, but it's very efficient."

Implementing remedial reforms on a larger scale would require restructuring colleges, reorganizing budgets and changing the culture of academic departments, Boylan said.

But there is also a wait-and-see attitude from some colleges, he said, where leaders may feel more quality research still is needed before they implement these reforms.

There also are unanswered questions about which developmental solutions are effective for nontraditional or minority students, as well as those who score at the bottom of placement exams.

"The colleges that are really trying to do something different with placement, they're using GPA, placement exams, summer bridge programs and corequisite models, because they have to meet the needs of many students," Waiwaiole said.


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