Accelerating developmental ed

Three models of accelerated developmental education are catching on at community colleges, according to WestEd’s Game Changers series. Acceleration cuts the time in remedial courses, letting students enroll more quickly—or immediately—in for-credit courses that lead to a certificate or degree. Acceleration strategies include:

Helping students avoid developmental education whenever possible

Revising the developmental education curriculum to shorten the sequence, align it with transfer-level and career technical coursework, and make it more rigorous

Providing additional student supports that are integrated with coursework

Providing remediation simultaneously with courses that lead to credentials

Customizing and contextualizing remediation along multiple academic and career pathways so that students learn math or language arts concepts based on their specific needs and on their desired instructional programs

Monitoring progress at regular intervals based on demonstrated competency rather than on seat time

“The most essential principle is for faculty to rethink the content of the developmental education sequence,” says Katie Hern, director of the California Acceleration Project, and a Chabot College English instructor.

On the English side, I question the way we’ve typically broken out our curriculum—such as teaching grammar first, then the sentence, then you step it up to work on paragraphs for a semester, then personal essays. There are assumptions that academic literacy can be broken into a linear subscale—that leads to a terrible curriculum. At Chabot College, we have a principle that what you need to do is practice the exact things college-level English will ask you to do. It’s the opposite of fragmentation. You are reading books, doing higher-order thinking, and writing essays. And you do that in developmental education classes. Students feel like they’re in a college English class—they just aren’t as good at it yet and they need additional supports.

Community college faculty are well aware of the high failure rates in traditional developmental education and open to new high ideas, say acceleration advocates.

Rethinking placement tests

Colleges are rethinking placement exams, concludes a new Jobs for the Future report, Where to Begin? Researchers have found that placement exams have very high stakes and are weak predictors of college success. Furthermore, it’s not clear that developmental classes improve student outcomes. “Many students required to take remedial classes could have succeeded in college-level coursework,” recent studies suggest.

Math and English assessments provide at best a narrow picture of students’ readiness for college. Placement tests do not measure many of the skills needed for college success—including persistence, motivation, and critical thinking. And only some students need most of the assessed math skills.

Some colleges in New Jersey and California are relying less on placement test results and more on high school grades or other measures of college readiness.

Also being explored are practices such as mainstreaming students into college-level courses with extra support, basing placement on students’ academic goals, and allowing them to make their own placement decisions.

Florida and Virginia are aligning assessments to their curricula instead of using off-the-shelf tests. Texas hopes to develop a  diagnostic assessment to evaluate students’ strengths and weaknesses. In the future may be assessments of students’ cognitive strategies, such as critical thinking and problem solving skills, as well as on-cognitive factors such as persistence and motivation.

Until recently, students were advised not to bother studying for college placement exams. Now high schools and colleges are trying to help students prepare for the tests.

In some high schools, juniors take college placement tests to provide an early warning of what college requires and chance to catch up in 12th grade. Community colleges also are trying to help prospective students brush up on math or English skills before they’re placed in developmental classes.

Doing dev ed differently

Faced with poor success rates for students placed in remedial classes, community colleges are Doing Developmental Education Differently, reports Inside Out, a new publication by the Community College Research Center‘s Scaling Innovation project.

Roughly 45 percent of students who place into a developmental math course one level below the college level complete their remediation requirements. Among students who begin three or more levels below college math, only 17 percent complete their entire developmental sequence. More than half of students who do complete all of their developmental courses do not complete the subsequent gatekeeper course.

Learning communities, compressed courses and mainstreaming hold promise for improved outcomes, CCRC research has found, but benefits “appear to be modest and relatively short-term.” Scaling Innovation seeks to understand how small-scale innovations can be expanded and adapted to “generate significant long-term impacts.”

Scaling Innovation is working on replicating several models:

The Accelerated Learning Project (ALP) at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) places eight upper-level developmental writing students in introductory college composition with 12 “college-ready” classmates. ALP students simultaneously take a companion course taught by the same instructor.

Concepts of Numbers for Arithmetic and Pre-algebra at Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania “employs a conceptual rather than topic-focused approach in teaching arithmetic in order to make mathematical connections more transparent and to provide students with sustained practice in foundational elements of quantitative reasoning.”

The California Acceleration Project (CAP) pilots new English and math classes that shorten the developmental sequence and teach “the most essential skills and habits of mind required for student success.”