Most students entering California’s community colleges – especially Latino, African American and low-income students – start their college journey in remedial courses in math, English or both. These courses seek to prepare students for college-level work. But remedial education, also known as developmental education, is lengthy, attrition is high and outcomes are poor. Further, these courses don’t transfer to four-year institutions and therefore delay students’ college careers.
But colleges have embarked on two promising reforms: improving their assessment and placement policies, and redesigning developmental course sequences to make them more conducive to student success.
Improving Assessment and Placement Policies
Assessment and placement policies determine where students begin their college journey. Yet, California’s community colleges vary in how they identify college-ready students. Colleges use different assessment tests and – even when using the same test – different scores to determine college readiness. This lack of consistency means that access to transfer-level courses is determined not only by students’ performance on the test, but also by where they enroll.
The Common Assessment Initiative, or CAI, which will establish a shared assessment test across the state’s community colleges, is a step in the right direction. Even so, individual campuses will continue to set their own placement rules, including which scores qualify as college-ready. Unless colleges choose similar scores, the lack of consistency will continue, creating potential obstacles for students. Balancing institutional autonomy and systemwide uniformity continues to be a big challenge.
In addition, reforms to placement policies at many campuses aim to broaden access to transfer-level courses and improve equity. Colleges are adjusting cut-off scores that determine college readiness and participating in research efforts to guide the use of multiple measures (such as high school records) to inform placement. These reforms could substantially increase the number of students who can proceed directly to college-level coursework.
Redesigning Developmental Sequences
A central problem with developmental education is that too many students drop out of courses before they have completed them. Long remedial course sequences contain many exit points where students are likely to drop out. To address this issue, many campuses have streamlined their developmental sequences. For example, colleges are compressing two developmental courses into a single semester. Others are allowing students to take developmental courses at the same time as transfer-level courses. More attention has also been paid to tailoring developmental education to students’ academic goals. One example is offering an accelerated pre-statistics course that is more closely aligned with the skills students need to be successful in college statistics, the course most liberal arts students take.
These reforms are widespread, with two-thirds of community colleges in the system offering redesigned as well as traditional developmental math course sequences. However, enrollment in these redesigned courses was only 8.3 percent of total enrollment in developmental math in 2014-15. Also, the scope and intensity of reforms vary a great deal across campuses. In at least 20 colleges, for example, enrollment in redesigned courses represented more than 15 percent of total enrollment in developmental math, nearly twice as high as the average percentage for the entire community college system.
While reforms to developmental education are necessary, meaningful improvement in students’ long-term outcomes will almost certainly require additional efforts. Colleges are increasingly seeking ways to help students identify their academic goals and develop pathways to achieve them. Developmental sequences should be better integrated with transfer-level courses, rather than stand-alone courses. Additionally, academic and nonacademic supports need to be integrated throughout the college experience.
In California and across the country, community colleges are moving in the right direction. As reforms continue, community colleges must better support students’ academic progression while upholding standards in college-level courses. California’s efforts are particularly important because of the size and diversity of our community college system – effective reforms could help other states facing similar issues. Improving student success in community colleges in California has the potential to dramatically increase the number of students, especially those from underrepresented groups, earning postsecondary degrees and credentials.
Olga Rodriguez is a research fellow and Marisol Cuellar Mejia is a research associate at the PPIC Higher Education Center.
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