developmental education

Revamping Placement Tests and Developmental Education

By Emily Rogan

How an entire state system embraced a new approach to remedial work.

Both North Carolina and Virginia have committed to statewide reform of developmental education in their community college systems. These two states are participating in an ongoing study by the Community College Research Center, within Teachers College at Columbia University, to explore the effects of these redesign initiatives.

To learn more about this reform and its effect on Virginia’s community colleges, we spoke with Catherine Finnegan, assistant vice chancellor for institutional effectiveness for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).

Redesigning developmental education

In 2012, as part of the overarching goal to redesign developmental education in the state, Virginia officials introduced a diagnostic and placement exam known as the Virginia Placement Test (VPT), which replaced the previously used COMPASS exam. Administrators hoped the change would help move more students into entry-level college courses rather than stand-alone developmental classes.

The reasoning behind this change was consistent with what other community college systems experienced. “Our students who entered developmental education were dropping out,” Finnegan says. “Fewer were persisting through to completion or certification.”

The new test format is tied to the curriculum, so that administrators might better identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and place them appropriately where they’d receive the best support, while progressing through college-level, credit-bearing courses.

The former approach often left students with up to four semesters of remedial work that didn’t count toward completion. “The course sequence was fairly lengthy for those students who came in unprepared, either students out of high school or older students reentering,” Finnegan says. Students who got “caught in that loop” often felt discouraged and lost.

“We decided to look at the entire process and see what would help these students be successful in college-level courses,” she says.

Shorter math modules

The whole system — all 23 community colleges — implemented the change on the same day. “We went right to scale,” Finnegan says.

The adaptations for developmental math involved a shift from semesterlong courses to nine, four-week, one-credit modules. Students focus on content areas in which they require help to hone particular skills.

“Students take different modules for the math level they need for the major or career they want,” Finnegan says. “For those students who understand it and are taking advantage of it, they can get through in one semester. There’s nothing holding them back.” As a result, students aren’t stuck in developmental classes; they can get out at any point along the way.

For English, VCCS has moved to a co-requisite model, where students receive simultaneous academic support while taking college credit classes. Officials are looking at a co-requisite model for math as well, according to Finnegan.

Funding questions

While some in the field might question the costliness of such a change in developmental education, Finnegan points out that in the long term, it’s a win-win for the colleges and the students.

Initial upfront costs may be offset by tuition, because more students would persist and stay in college-level classes all the way to completion.

Lessons learned

Finnegan says it’s important to be purposeful in what you want to do when making such sweeping changes. At first, administrators “focused on developmental math rather than math in its entirety as a goal,” she says. “I think we should have aimed higher; that’s where we are now.”

Involvement and buy-in from the entire faculty is also essential, Finnegan says. “Communication is vitally important. Rumor mills start quickly. We talked about this throughout and let people know what was going on.”

And finally, Finnegan says, it takes both “grass-roots and top-down leadership” to affect such change. “It can’t be just one or the other.”

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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