© Christopher Michel (via Creative Commons)
Understanding the Research, Policy, and Practice Behind Transforming Remediation
August 20, 2013 09:41 AM
The American Youth Policy Forum conducted an online seminar last week, presenting some key principles for transforming remedial education in postsecondary education. The webinar also highlighted promising institution-level practices and discussed future steps.
The webinar presenters were moderated by Joe Harris, Managing Research Analyst, American Institutes for Research and included Katie Hern, Chabot College and Director of the California Acceleration Project; Michelle Hodara, Senior Researcher with Education Northwest; Cynthia Liston, Associate Vice President of Policy Research and Special Projects, North Carolina Community College; and Bruce Vandal, Vice President of Complete College America.
According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, approximately half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Unfortunately, many of these students never move beyond their placement in remediation. Only a quarter of community college students taking a remedial course graduates within eight years.
Completion of a set of gateway courses for a program of study is a critical measure of success towards college completion. The content in such required courses should align with a student’s academic program of study, particularly in the area of mathematics. “Enrollment in a gateway college-level course should be the default placement for many more students,” said Vandal. Colleges generally place students into remedial classes based primarily on a single score on a standardized test. “Yet the evidence on the predictive validity of these tests is not as strong as many might assume, and research fails to find evidence that the resulting placements into remediation improve student outcomes.”
Only 2.5 students out of 10 pass an English gateway course; one out of 10 pass the math course. As these students progress through the remedial programs, designed to elevate their education so as to pass the gateway course, they are faced with multiple opportunities to exit the education pathway and fail to complete college. “Students who are significantly underprepared for college-level academic work need accelerated routes into programs of study,” said Vandal. “Multiple measures should be used to provide guidance in the placement of students in both gateways and programs of study.” The tests used to place students in remedial classes focus on a very narrow set of skills in reading, writing, and math that often have little relationship to the content students need for their preferred programs of study. Remedial education courses are generally designed to prepare students for either college-level English composition or college algebra. Yet specific basic skills requirements differ across fields.
Vandal noted the significant challenge that faces a change in the approach to remedial postsecondary education. States are faced with transforming their developmental education policy and practice to deliver academic support for the majority of students as a co-requisite (rather than a pre-requisite); develop Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), non-STEM, and technical education pathways in math; and use high school GPA and other non-cognitive variables to guide student choices into best-fit gateway courses. “We want to see the majority of students successfully complete gateway courses in their program of study within one academic year,” said Vandal.
Hern noted that in California, data shows that “the lower a student begins in remedial sequences, the lesser likelihood of them completing college-level courses.” She cited research that indicated only 6 percent of students beginning three or more levels below college math completed the gateway course within three years. “The problem is a structural one,” she said, using an example of a student placed two levels below a college English or math course face six decision points where they fall away. “Do they enroll in the first course? Do they then pass that course? If they pass, do they enroll in the next course? If enrolled, do they pass the second? If they pass, do they enroll in the college-level course? If they enroll, do they pass?” Students placed three levels down face eight points of exit.
“Improving the pass results within the structure isn’t enough,” noted Hern. By improving all of the pass rates to 90 percent or higher for each level, it would still only raise the likelihood of completion to 54 percent. “We need to restructure our approach to under-prepared students and eliminate the exit points where we lose them.”
Liston discussed the curriculum redesign undertaken by the North Carolina Community College system. “The Developmental Education Initiative had four goals: reduce the overall need for developmental education in the K-12 alignment, reduce time to complete developmental education, implement better tools for assessing and placing students, and improve data tracking and analysis capabilities.” The DEI State Policy Team selected 18-member faculty teams to redesign curriculum. In math, the new curriculum saw students only taking modules needed based on diagnostic assessment, with an emphasis on conceptual understanding and alignment. Delivery methods and instructional materials remained the local college choice. In English, two separate remediation disciplines were integrated with a 50 percent reduction in curriculum content. A co-requisite option was provided for students who were deemed near college ready.
Hodara identified three common tensions currently within remedial curriculum redesign for community colleges. “There must be system-wide consistency but not at the expense of institutional autonomy,” she said. “You have to have grassroots buy-in, give everyone time to digest. Then you have to give them opportunity to give feedback.”
Another tension existed between efficient versus effective assessment. “Colleges have to evaluate thousands of incoming students every year,” said Hodara. “But current tests are not aligned with content students need to know to pass college-level classes.” She cited a study by the Community College Research Center that indicated using high school transcript data could actually lower remediation rates while increasing college-level success rates in both math and English.
The final tension was that of supporting progression versus upholding standards. “The national push to increase college completion is hampered by high rates of remediation, with only 28 percent of developmental students going on to earn a credential,” said Hodara. “Yet reforms targeted specifically to support progression could result in both greater numbers of under-prepared students in college-level classes, and a choice between relaxing standards or failing large numbers of students.”
The panel posed a few questions for policy makers to consider. Is there any value in creating a statewide consistency around determining students’ readiness for college-level coursework versus the need for remediation? Who should be involved to create a centralized policy? “How would you redesign the placement process for your subject area?” asked Hodara. “And who should be involved? What kinds of accelerated pathways would work for your college or department? And how do you establish and measure learning goals?”
“At the state level, higher education officials and policymakers can implement new system and state policies that promote and support continuous improvement, successful innovation, and a commitment to scale,” said Vandal. “Institutions should develop fundamentally new systems for moving students into and through academic programs that lead to a credential.” He also suggested that institutions should encourage and support faculty who employ innovative instructional and pedagogical strategies that take advantage of new technology and research-based instructional practices.
“There’s no time to just test the waters with this,” Vandal urged. “We need to put this knowledge together and drive large-scale change, for the sake of millions of students counting on postsecondary education as a first step towards a better future for themselves and their families.”
Higher education systems, states, and college need to match the aspirations of remediation students to dramatically improve rates of degree and credential completion. Using new methods and ground-breaking practices while addressing tensions should lead to a more coherent, contextualized, and completion-focused approach for all students. Policymakers can implement new system and state policies that promote and support continuous improvement, innovation, and commitment to scale. In the end, a student’s experience through community college remediation programs should match the optimism felt when they first decided to take the next step in their education, their career, and their life.