Report: Colleges Behind in Development Ed Practices

Schools relying on placement tests to determine whether students need developmental classes in order to be college-ready could be doing their students a disservice that lasts a lifetime. That's the overall conclusion of a new report out from Education Northwest, which conducts education-focused research.

"Developmental Education and College Readiness at the University of Alaska" examined developmental education placement rates and how well high school grade point average and exam performance predicted performance in college-level courses among first-time students who enrolled at the institution between fall 2008 and spring 2012.

Colleges typically place students in developmental ed based on their performance on the SAT or ACT, usually taken in high school — often months after they've been in classes covering the tested subjects. Or they may determine placement based on the results of the ACCUPLACER or ACT Compass tests. But as researchers Michelle Hodara and Monica Cox noted in their report, that "reliance on...test-based measures" may be ill-founded. In many cases those students could have succeeded in their college coursework while others who went directly into the college courses could have stood for some developmental work first.

As a Hechinger article pointed out, so much attention paid to "all this remedial education" has its cost. After all, while students are taking those developmental courses, they're paying tuition but not earning college credit, which is "one of the big reasons that student debt is rising, college graduation is taking longer and students are getting discouraged and dropping out entirely."

Among the findings of the study:

  • Developmental ed placement rates were higher in math than in English. And the rates for math increased "as the time between students' exiting high school and entering college increased";
  • Developmental placement rates were highest for Alaska Native students from rural areas of the state (in English) and Black students from urban areas (in math);
  • Among those enrolled in developmental ed, 47 percent eventually passed college English and 23 percent eventually passed college math; and
  • High school grade point average was a stronger predictor of performance in college English and math than any of the test scores were. "Specifically, the report stated, "a one-unit increase in high school grade point average (for example, an increase from 2.0 to 3.0) increases a student's likelihood of earning a C or higher 25-29 percentage points in college English and 27-33 percentage points in college math."

The authors offered a few recommendations based on the findings of their research.

First, they suggested that schools provide students with ways to "improve their awareness of college readiness standards before their senior year in high school" and provide "targeted supports" to address specific academic challenges they're facing, such as a fourth year of math or accelerated learning opportunities.

Second, they highly encouraged the use of GPA for determining whether students were college-ready. For example, the report noted, rural Alaska Native students had lower average exam scores than other student groups but higher average high school GPAs.

The study pointed to a group of California community colleges that changed their policies in 2011 to include GPA in the placement decision-making process. The result, reported the Hechinger article: "They're placing more students into college courses from the get-go, and more students are passing them."

The study is available on Institution of Education Sciences website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.