Early Results from CAPR’s Developmental Education Survey: A Conversation with Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow: Colleges are really thinking and experimenting in new ways that we haven’t seen in developmental education.

Preliminary results from a CAPR survey of nearly 1,000 colleges on how developmental education programs have evolved over the last several years show a dramatic increase in the number of colleges experimenting with reforms. More colleges are looking at high school grades and other measures of college readiness to help determine whether to place students in developmental or college-level courses, and more are implementing innovative methods to get students into college courses more quickly.

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, a Senior Research Associate at MDRC and one of the lead researchers on the survey project, explains the findings and how they fit with what’s happening in developmental education more broadly.

Q: Tell me about this CAPR project. What was the goal?

The original goal of this project was to better understand the landscape of dev ed in the country. We know a lot about different types of reforms, we know a lot about the challenges in dev ed, and we know that lots of colleges are trying different things. But we don’t really know to what extent those reforms are being implemented, and in what ways, and at what scope.

For instance, there’s been a lot of discussion and research around the challenges with assessing students for college readiness when they come in to open-access colleges, and discussions about ways to revise that process—instead of just doing standardized tests—including high school grades, or other measures of high school performance, or a measure of motivation. This study is trying to understand to what extent that is happening in colleges across the county.

Q: What have we found out so far from the survey and interviews?

We’re finding that there’s been quite a bit of movement in the implementation of both new assessment practices and new instructional practices over the last several years. There was a national survey that was done of assessment practices published in 2012 by Fields and Parsad. And they found that most institutions were relying upon standardized tests when deciding on college readiness—like ACCUPLACER, Compass, or SATs or ACTs.

In our survey of assessment practices, we have found that quite a few colleges are now using other types of criteria. For instance, 51 percent of public two-year colleges were using multiple measures for reading and writing placement. There are still a large number of colleges using standardized tests, but they are often integrating another type of measure along with that.

The challenges around instruction were these multisemester developmental education course sequences that students needed to complete in order to be eligible to enter into a college-level class. Overall, we are beginning to find that colleges are often reducing that sequencing, trying to accelerate developmental instruction and trying to get students through more quickly. Among public two-year colleges in this survey, over half had implemented compressed courses in math, where a traditional semester-length course is shortened into a multiweek or a half-a-semester course. Similarly, about half of the colleges had integrated reading and writing—which were traditionally two separate course sequences.

Q: What does it say about the state of developmental education that these changes are happening?

It shows, first, that the research that’s been out there has gained some traction, that colleges are really thinking and experimenting in new ways that we really haven’t seen in developmental education. It also shows reliance on old practices: There are still standardized tests out there. There are still multisemester dev ed course sequences. But alongside those, there are also efforts to revise those instructional and assessment practices.

Q: Were you surprised by the growth? Was it beyond what you expected?

I think it is somewhat surprising, given that discussion around multiple math pathways, for instance, as an instructional approach—where you diversify the type of math that students take starting at the developmental level—began around 2009, 2010. The idea that now a large percentage of colleges are actually implementing math pathways throughout the nation is a pretty quick change.

Q: What more do colleges, policymakers, and researchers want to know about dev ed? What other questions can we answer for them?

The two page summary of the survey results is really just a very quick look. We’ll be doing a much more intensive review in a larger report that’s scheduled to be released later this year. In that report we’ll take a deeper dive into the scale at which various reforms are being implemented, both within institutions and within selected states. We also hope to learn a little bit more about how the colleges are potentially aligning with high schools and whether or not there’s work ongoing between these two systems in different areas.

We also have two more rigorous studies that will be bringing additional light on these two questions, particularly around assessment and instruction. Those both have final reports scheduled for release in 2019.

Q: When the CAPR projects are done, what do you see as the next set of questions? When you’re out talking to colleges, what do they want to know?

I think the field is in a different place than it was five or six years ago, when there was an intense focus on developmental education. Many colleges now are focused on how developmental education fits in with larger pathways in college. How are we getting students through multiple semesters of coursework and then towards graduation? Are the skills that they are gaining going to be useful to them in the workforce and help them achieve living-wage jobs? I think a lot of this research will be integrated into those discussions. The research that we’ll have will provide some more evidence around what does seem to be working and what doesn’t—and will be useful in the long term to inform discussions around what kind of strategies might be best for helping improve student success.

This interview was condensed and edited.

Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow is a senior associate with MDRC. She is a lead in MDRC’s research on developmental education, adult basic education, and GED preparation.