Developmental ed isn’t what it used to be – with better results

Across the country, the traditional approach to developmental education of using a standardized assessment test to place students into one or more remediation courses has fallen progressively into disfavor.

Bolstered by calls for reform from the research community, alternative methods of assessment as well as delivery practices are increasingly common. These changes have been driven by both institutions and states. A new report highlights how far we’ve come.

Evidence-based changes make a difference

Evidence-driven changes in remediation involve assessing its need and the form the remediation takes. Judith Scott-Clayton, a long standing scholar of development education, drew this conclusion in a recently released Brookings Institution report. In the report, Scott-Clayton reviewed relevant research, including her own and that of her colleagues at the Community College Research Center (CCRC).

Among the more troubling findings that have contributed to the changing development education landscape is that an estimated “one-quarter to one-third of students assigned to remediation could have earned a B or better in college-level coursework, had they been given the chance.” These and other findings of not only the ineffectiveness, but negative consequences, of the standardized tests persuaded professionals and policymakers alike to seek alternative models of development education.

Scott-Clayton noted that since 2012 there has been a decline in the number of students overall and at community colleges who report ever having taken a remediation course. There may be several explanations, including a return to pre-recession enrollment patterns and coincidence, she says.

However, Scott-Clayton offers another plausible explanation for large-scale systemic and state-wide reforms. Institutions began experimenting with multiple measures, including high school performance in lieu of or in addition to placement tests. Some institutions adopted a co-requisite model, which some states, like Tennessee and Virginia, expanded state-wide.

An early adopter was the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, whose Accelerated Learning Program increased college-level course completion. Another study found that in 2016 most community colleges used multiple measures for remedial placement in both English and math, more than double the number using these for math and nearly triple for English since 2011.

Research, policy, practice

These trends in the number of community college students taking traditional remediation courses and the number of institutions using multiple instead of single assessment measures are encouraging. However, the “success of these major policy shifts is not without caveat,” Scott-Clayton says. There are financial and administrative costs to using multiple measures of college preparation as well providing co-requisite support. State policies, which require their public colleges to use the co-requisite model, do not necessarily include additional money to achieve positive results.

It is not the time to rest on one’s laurels with regard to developmental education research and policy changes, but rather, Scott-Clayton reminds us, that “as more evidence is generated, new questions are sure to be raised” and it is only with what she terms “a virtuous cycle between research, policy and practice” that “outcomes for students will hopefully keep moving in the right direction.”

Evidence-based redesigning of development education is a priority for community colleges and the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). This is a stated goal of the AACC 21st-Century Initiative’s recommendation to “dramatically improve college readiness.”

About the Author

Jolanta Juszkiewicz
is director of policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.
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