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A national public policy initiative to improve developmental studies in postsecondary education

Removing the Hurdles to Success

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After interacting with remedial education leaders from throughout the country at the recent National Center for Postsecondary Research Conference on Developmental Education and the Getting Past Go Workshop on Remedial Education last week it has become clear to me that we need to increase our understanding of: the students who are placed into developmental education, what students need to know to succeed in their academic programs, the systems we have in place to serve them and the results we have achieved.

For far too long the core enterprise of assessment, placement and delivery of instruction has been boiled down to the success or failure of students in individual developmental courses.  We now know that there is a long series of events and interactions that developmental education students experience at colleges and universities that have a profound effect on their success.

Possibly the best visual representation of how difficult it is for students to leap the hurdles placed before them in developmental education is in slide 8 of this presentation by Tom Bailey from the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University. The graph shows that at every step along the developmental education path, students are giving up on their goal of a college education. Bailey shows that for those students who require 3 or more levels of developmental math, their likelihood of passing an introductory college level math course is about 10%. Most interesting in Bailey’s visual is that many of the students who drop out of the system do so after successfully completing the previous course and then not bothering to enroll in the subsequent course. This data suggests a deep disconnect between students and the institutions that serve them.

That disconnect is described in depth in a new piece entitled, One Shot Deal? Students’ Perceptions of Assessment and Course Placement at California’s Community Colleges from Andre Venezia, Kathy Reeves Braaco and Thad Nodine from WestEd. The authors describe a confusing, discombobulated system of policies, procedures and services that in many cases prevent, rather than facilitate student enrollment and completion of developmental education. Among their key findings is that many who enroll have no idea what the academic expectations are, what is at stake when they take an assessment exam and whether there are resources (such as practice tests) that are available to help them. The bottom line is that many students are sentenced to multiple levels of developmental education without a fair and reasonable assessment of their readiness. It is no wonder that many students choose to not even enroll in their developmental courses.

Given this reality on many campuses, it was refreshing to connect with state, system and institutional leaders who are committed to drastically reforming the way they do developmental education at the Getting Past Go Workshop.  Over the course of our discussions nearly all involved agreed that we need to work harder to deepen our understanding of student needs and strengths, collect better data about all students who enroll in developmental education and hold ourselves accountable for results.

Some of the more interesting strategies discussed at the workshop include the:

  • Desire for more precise diagnostic assessments that pinpoint student deficiencies and strengths
  • Utilization of alternative assessments that include non-cognitive measures such as student academic goals, study skills, life circumstances around family and work and student knowledge of the college education system
  • Articulation of clear competencies in math, reading and writing that students must demonstrate before moving beyond developmental instruction
  • Understanding of the competencies necessary for each academic program so that students only need to learn the content associated with success in their program
  • Incorporation of more distinct data elements about developmental education students like high school preparation level, college entrance exam scores, Pell grant status, age, ethnicity and enrollment status in state and system reports to assist in the development of continuous improvement straegies.
  • Tracking of student success measures beyond completion of developmental courses to include: completion of college-level courses, retention, transfer, time to completion of first college level course, degree completion and/or student completion of academic goals (other than a credential)
  • Alignment of performance indicators with specific strategies intended to directly impact those indicators.

The deepening and broadening of our knowledge of developmental education students is a critical first step to developing more effective strategies to increase their success.  Over the coming weeks and months GPG will be engaging those who attended the workshop and others to see how we can propel efforts to collect better data and develop stronger policy to repair the deep and disastrous disconnect between developmental education students and postsecondary institutions.