Reexamining developmental education

By Ed Finkel

States, colleges examine how to speed up remedial courses, move students toward completion

State community college systems and their two-year colleges have spent the 2010s reexamining and redesigning decades-old developmental education tracks to ensure students get what they need—and only what they need—with an eye toward moving them more quickly into college-level courses and, eventually, the degree or certificate they want.

In Virginia, evidence collected nearly a decade ago by the Community College Research Center shows how unreliable developmental education placement tests were at that time, and how few students who placed into the lowest levels of developmental math, in particular, completed their degrees, says Sharon Morrissey, vice chancellor for academic services and research for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).

“That was very compelling evidence,” she says. “In sharing it with college leaders, it didn’t take a lot of persuasion to say, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’ Students are coming to us because they want a college education, a better salary, a better life. And we thought we were creating a very important support system for them. Instead, we were creating this Bermuda Triangle that they sunk into and never came out of.”

The process to redesign developmental education began with the state convincing leadership on campuses, which Morrissey says did not take long, and then campus leaders convincing faculty, which involved more time and effort. “The most important thing VCCS did when it started this work was to empanel faculty committees to lead the work,” she says.

The initiative began with four goals: decrease the number of students enrolling in developmental education, which related to the placement testing strategy; increase the number of students who completed the requirements in one year; increase the number of students who successfully completed college-level math and English; and increase the percentage of students who graduated. The system has seen positive results on all fronts, Morrissey says.

Before the redesign, Virginia had semester-long courses with several courses in a sequence, she says. “If you placed into a developmental math course, you had to go back over coursework that you might have already known. It was bundled into a big, old course over a whole semester. English and reading were a separate course from writing, but students who placed into developmental English placed into both. There were hours and hours students had to take before they got into a college-level course.”

The faculty redesigned those courses into narrow, discreet modules, and placement tests are now tailored to those modules. “We made structural changes such as a co-requisite option, so students who place at a certain level can take developmental English and college-level English at the same time,” Morrissey says.

The math courses will be offered that way next fall.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming article in the April/May Community College Journal, which will hit mailboxes in mid-April.

Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.