Developmental Education

Author: Helios Education Foundation

November 7, 2014

One third of all new college students begin their higher education journey at community colleges1 where open enrollments make access easier. But once enrolled, these students immediately encounter major hurdles:  assessment tests or placement exams2 and the subsequent "remedial" or "developmental" coursework if they do not do well on those exams.

Today, many researchers are questioning the validity of assessment tests and the efficacy of developmental courses. Helios Education Foundation, in its efforts to improve students' postsecondary academic achievement,  has focused attention on this debate and the changes that are occurring in community college education in Arizona and Florida.

Nationwide, more than 60 percent of students entering community colleges are placed in remedial or developmental education courses based on results of assessment tests.3 Rather than helping students succeed, these courses prove to be a significant barrier to success, research suggests.4

Often, these developmental courses do not carry college credit or accrue toward graduation requirements, meaning students spend time and resources without making progress towards a degree. Developmental courses can lead to discouragement and frustration, which are significant obstacles for vulnerable students with limited resources or family support. But most critically, research shows that very few students who are placed in developmental courses persist to graduation: Only 22 percent of developmental education students at community colleges complete remediation requirements and associated "gatekeeper" courses within two years, according to Complete College America.4  The problem is two-fold.

Placement tests may be weak predictors of who is ready for college-level courses and who is not. Many believe that high school grades are a better predictor, in that they reflect not only academic ability but student resilience. Placement tests may hit students on a "bad day," resulting in poor scores. And most placement tests are not intended to assess individual student strengths and weaknesses but to grade the entire cohort of students against a pre-determined cutoff: anyone scoring below the cutoff is placed in developmental courses.

Then there are the developmental courses themselves. Traditionally, they have focused on merely re-teaching high-school material with little thought to preparing the student for college-level rigor.

Advocates for change argue that incoming college students should be individually evaluated for their academic readiness, with results of placement tests, if administered, being viewed in the context of high school grades and other test scores. Developmental coursework, if needed, should be delivered in a manner that is carefully linked to college-level work and enables the student to move quickly into college-level credit-bearing courses. All vulnerable students should have an array of supports -- such as placement test preparation, proactive advising, tutoring and peer coaching -- to maximize their chances at success in a rigorous curriculum.

In Arizona and Florida, educators and policymakers are taking very different approaches to the student assessment dilemma, owing in part to the way higher education is structured in each state.

In Florida, community colleges are part of the Florida College System -- a network of 28 institutions under a Chancellor who reports to the state Commissioner of Education.5 This coordinated system allows for system-wide change at the direction of the state Legislature and Department of Education leadership.

In 2013, the Legislature approved legislation making placement testing optional for graduates of Florida public high schools and developmental education optional for all incoming students. But the new law also requires students to be counseled about their options and for the college to provide multiple opportunities for developmental education -- through "gateway" courses, accelerated learning, co-requisite developmental instruction and contextualized instruction. These strategies are consistent with the concept of supporting students' migration to more rigorous coursework as opposed to re-teaching skills.

The Florida law went into effect in January 2014, and the new standards are expected to be fully implemented by fall 2014. Beginning October 31, 2015, each college is required to provide annual reports showing student success data relating to each developmental strategy offered by the institution.

In Arizona, by contrast, colleges are much more autonomous and their programs and education strategies more varied. But some institutions -- notably Scottsdale Community College (SCC) in Maricopa County – have moved to change their approach to developmental education.

In 2008, SCC determined that its traditional, 16-week approach to developmental education was not yielding the desired results; success rates were in the 50 to 60 percent range. Over five years, the school implemented a number of new strategies, including:

Small group orientations for new students to better identify student needs and connect students with support systems;

Multiple approaches to developmental learning, including linked and parallel courses that emphasize connections with college credit courses, as well as consecutive courses and accelerated learning courses that expedite student progress;

Learning communities to support students and an array of additional student support services to keep students on track to success; and

Extensive professional development for faculty teaching developmental education.

The school also increased the rigor of its developmental education courses, and, as a result, has seen success rates drop slightly. However, those students who do pass the developmental education courses are showing strong success in the next level math and English courses – 79 percent  and 85 percent, respectively.

Developmental education is a high stakes endeavor -- for taxpayers as well as students. The costs of placement testing alone in a state the size of Florida can reach $200 million. Arizona's Maricopa County spends about $100 million on developmental education at its 10 community colleges.

But the cost to students and the nation's future economy are much greater. To compete globally, the United States needs a better-educated workforce -- more students earning quality postsecondary degrees. That goal will not be met if huge groups of students languish in classrooms struggling to keep up before eventually giving up.

"At Helios, we are watching with great interest the changes in Arizona and Florida," said Braulio Colón, Helios Vice President and Program Director, Postsecondary Education Initiatives. "Our goal is to learn what we can from this change so we can identify and integrate evidence-based solutions into our work so more traditionally underserved students in Florida and Arizona access, persist and complete high-quality degrees."



 "Unlocking the Gate, What We Know About Developmental Education," MDRC, June 2011.

 Ninety-Two Percent of two-year colleges in the U.S. administer placement exams to help determine who may enroll in college-level courses and who will be referred to remedial education. "Do High-Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success?",  Judith Scott-Clayton, February 2012, Community College Research Center.

(Beyond the Rhetoric:  Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy:

(Remediation:  Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere:

In 2009, Florida changed the name from the Florida Community College System to reflect the fact that many of the institutions were offering four-year bachelor degrees. All continue to have open-door admission policies.

Optional testing is limited to those students who graduated from a Florida public high school in 2007 or later.

Category: Postsecondary Success

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