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Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness

NEW YORK CITY -- While a great deal of progress has been made in developmental education reforms aimed at improving student success rates, researchers and academics at the Reimagining Developmental Education conference in Manhattan last week said there’s still work left to do.

Nationally, about 70 percent of undergraduate college students are advised to take developmental courses in reading, writing or math, rather than starting with college-level, credit-bearing classes right away. Research has shown that enrolling in non-credit-bearing developmental courses can not only slow students down, but also hinder their persistence.

“Developmental education is really the true gatekeeper,” said Bridget Terry Long, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, during her keynote speech here.

The Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness, led by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College and nonprofit education research organization MDRC, presented several studies on the success of various models at the conference, including results from a survey of how far developmental education reforms have spread so far.

The survey found a 30 percent increase since 2011 in colleges' use of multiple measures to assess students’ readiness for college-level work, as opposed to using only standardized tests.

But it also found that reforms were reaching less than half of the students in developmental education.

Researchers, administrators and others shared their experiences and findings of what works in developmental education in the hope that these ideas will spread and scale to reach more students.

“This is a unique moment to bring about structural change, because a growing number of institutions will have no choice,” said Uri Treisman, founder and executive director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin. “They will not survive if they don’t do this work.”

More than Placement Tests

One of the largest challenges in developmental education is how to determine who takes the courses.

Multiple-measures placement, a strategy that looks at several predictors in a holistic way rather than relying solely on a placement test, is supported by research as a good option. Elisabeth Barnett, a senior research scholar at CCRC and a senior research staff member at CAPR, presented a study of multiple-measures placement in the State University of New York system.

While more information will improve predictions, Barnett said, institutions may need to use different types of measures for different groups of students.

The measures can include traditional tests, writing assessments, high school GPAs and transcripts, and computer skills, among others. The study found that high school GPAs are the best at predicting placement, and that noncognitive assessments might be better for older students or those without high school academic records.

For example, among a sample of about 13,000 students across seven community colleges in the SUNY system, those who were placed using multiple measures were more likely to be placed in college-level courses and to complete those classes earlier than the control group of students. The results for English courses were stronger than those for math. All demographics of students also benefited, whether broken down by race, income or gender.

This method can be relatively expensive to implement, Barnett said. The first-term costs were about $110 per student, but that dropped to $40 in subsequent terms.

The implementation of multiple-measures placement also seems to be successful in Virginia, where the state’s community college system has seen the number of students placed in developmental courses nearly cut in half, according to a presentation from Catherine Finnegan, assistant vice chancellor for research and reporting at the Virginia Community College System. In 2009, more than 14,000 students were placed in developmental courses, compared with about 7,000 last fall. The system adopted multiple measures in 2016.

Success in Pathways

Pathways, whether guided, career or math, were common themes of the conference. Karen Gardiner, a principal associate at Abt Associates, presented a study of the I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) program in Washington, which sends students through career pathways even if their assessment scores are too low to be placed in college courses.

The program uses team teaching, where basic skills instructors join occupational instructors in their classes at least half of the time. The state also provides more funding for these students, Gardiner said.

The findings show that I-BEST students earn more academic and workforce credits than those not in the program. They are also more likely to earn a certificate or degree.

Martha Ellis, director of higher education strategy, policy and services at the Dana Center, spoke about math pathways, which aims to break down one of the largest barriers for some students: college algebra. This reform requires “transformative change,” from the classroom up to the national level, she said, adding that engaging faculty at every level is key.

If these reforms are not faculty led and faculty driven, they can come to a “screeching halt” in collective bargaining states, she said.

CAPR also studied math pathways, which send students into math courses that are aligned with their programs of study and help students complete the first college-level requirement for math in their first year. Students would start with a foundational class, then move to college-level courses on one of three pathways dependent on majors.

The instruction also is different, with instructors supporting active learning, such as through engaging students in group work and contextualizing the work to future careers, among other methods.

After looking at four colleges using the Dana Center's model, CAPR found that, over all, implementation and use of the curriculum model went well. Students in math pathways came away with different perspectives on math; more thought it was interesting, saw they could use it in everyday life and were more interested in math, according to Elizabeth Rutschow, senior research associate at MDRC and a member of the senior research staff at CAPR.

More students enrolled in, passed and completed math sequences when they were in a math pathways program, the study also found. The impacts were greater for students who had several math needs, Rutschow said. Those who would have needed only one developmental course saw less significant improvements over the control group. The impacts were also more significant for part-time students.


One area that needs more explanation is pedagogy. Vilma Mesa, a professor and associate at the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education at the University of Michigan, is studying what quality instruction is in developmental education. She found that the language to describe it didn't exist.

Rethinking how to teach is an important part of the conversation, but one of the hardest to take action on, because there's often a tension between academic freedom and evidence-based pedagogy that can be difficult to push past, according to Emily Lardner, interim vice president for academic affairs at Highline College in Washington. Lardner said she wants faculty members to know about the research on how people learn and have time to discuss the issue with each other.

It’s important for instructors to know about how to focus on students' assets while teaching, as well as to recognize their own privileges and implicit biases, Lardner said, but very few opportunities exist for them to learn about those approaches.

This can lead to a lack of awareness of privileges and a lack of knowledge on how to incorporate that into the classroom, said Gwenn Eldridge, assistant vice president of academic transitions and support at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana.

Five years ago, this discussion wouldn't have happened, Mesa said.

"With all due respect, you guys are coming really late to this conversation," she said. "So welcome."

The people of color who were doing this work before need allies, Mesa said. And they need people in academia to understand their moral responsibility "for what we've been doing with blinders on." Those in higher education, she said, need to be asking the hard questions about who is winning and losing when institutions and faculty adopt certain policies or teach in certain ways.

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