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

The Challenge of Serving Those Assessed at the Lowest Levels

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Not surprisingly, few who are placed 2, 3 or more levels below college ready ever complete their remedial education sequence, pass a college-level gateway course and  earn a degree. What is of greatest concern is that we have not understood the extent of this problem until recently. Data collected by Achieving the Dream found that among the students they have tracked in their participating institutions, only about 15% ever complete their remedial sequence in one academic year.  Most alarming is that almost 46% of students never even begin their remedial sequence in one academic year.

The data is even more alarming for students who are placed 3 or more levels below college-level.  Tom Bailey of the Community College Research Center has found that students who are placed three levels below college-level in math have only a 10% chance of ever passing a college level math course.

Many institutions have recognized the low likelihood that students who are placed at the lowest levels of remediation will ever earned a degree and as a result are considering denying students access to developmental education courses on their campuses and instead referring them to adult basic education or other basic skill training programs.

Some argue that in a time of limited resources, it makes a great deal of sense for postsecondary institutions to discontinue providing remedial education to students placed at the lowest levels and encourage them to find another, less costly option to address their basic skills needs.  Unfortunately, there is little evidence to suggest that students ever find an alternative way to get their needs met and eventually re-enroll at the college of their choice, college ready.

I think it is far too early for postsecondary institutions to throw in the towel with these students. Why?, Because we know very little about why these students fail.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the real problem may not have anything to do with the students, and more to do with how institutions serve these students.  After all, it is not an unreasonable response for a student who seeks to earn a credential and get a job to give up on that dream if they are told that they are looking at 3 or more semester of developmental education before they can begin their postsecondary program.  New research from the likes of MDRC and WestEd suggest that the system of assessing and placing students is so confusing and overwhelming for many that it could very well be that can be successful are so disillusioned that they don’t even try to pursue their goals.

We need to better deconstruct the system of failure for serving students assessed at the lowest level and provide some practical steps for how institutions can reinvent the way they serve students.

One Comment

  1. The data presented here match my experience in a community college. I agree that it is too early for colleges to throw in the towel on these students. It is likely a mix of student characteristics and institutional characteristics and policies that affect outcomes. I would also note that simple acceleration is not necessarily the answer for people who need literacy work to be able to read above an elementary school level. You don’t jump from 4th grade reading to the ability to read a 100 level college text (even in job training programs) in a semester of a few hours of instruction a week. I think we need to see these students as a huge opportunity for the community college to figure out just where the problems are and how to best address these students’ needs.