The Importance of Examining Placement Practices When Reforming Developmental Math

By Lauren Schudde

Happy college students work together in the student center

There is a growing consensus in the field of higher education that the traditional developmental coursework approach—a series of courses to “remediate” students until they are “college-ready”—doesn’t work. Cumulative evidence over the past decade illustrates that traditional developmental math sequences offer little benefit to students and, at worst, stunt students’ progress toward their desired degree.

In our recent CAPR research brief, Yonah Meiselman and I present evidence about a reform strategy for developmental math that is sometimes called the math pathways approach. Under math pathways, students are encouraged to enroll in a college-level math course suited to their field of interest as soon as possible after entering college. We studied the outcomes of students who were placed into a compressed developmental course in a math pathway, which was the prevalent approach to implementing math pathways at the time. With this approach, sequences of two or more developmental courses were condensed into a prerequisite course that covered the same content in a single semester in order to accelerate students’ progress into college-level math coursework.

Our findings illustrate that Texas community college students who took a compressed prerequisite developmental math course as part of the Dana Center Mathematics Pathways (DCMP) were more likely to enroll in and pass introductory college-level math courses than their non-DCMP peers. Our work builds on earlier research from us and other CAPR researchers that illustrates the effectiveness of the DCMP approach.

We also found that colleges tended to enroll a disproportionately large number of White students in DCMP developmental courses relative to students from other racial/ethnic groups, especially Hispanic students. We do not expect that these patterns are unique to implementing DCMP, but rather that they highlight an important issue that all colleges must consider as they implement developmental education reforms.

Reforms like compressed prerequisite and corequisite developmental coursework—which is comprised of paired developmental and college-level coursework within the same term—are opportunities for students to build momentum to complete their course requirements. The practices that colleges use to place students into these pathways have important implications for equity. Placement decisions by college personnel serve to accelerate some students through developmental and college-level requirements and leave others with a longer path to completion. Inequitable access to developmental reforms could exacerbate existing educational inequities.

The landscape of developmental math and developmental education in general is rapidly shifting. In Texas, colleges are in the midst of responding to HB 2223, legislation passed in spring 2017 that requires all colleges to increase the percentage of developmental education students enrolled in corequisite instruction to 75 percent by fall 2020. Although our research on DCMP focused on the compressed prerequisite developmental math coursework offered in 2015 and 2016, we expect that the findings also have important lessons for colleges implementing corequisite reforms. Given that colleges in Texas will not be mandated to enroll more than 75 percent of students who require remediation into corequisite coursework, they will inevitably need to decide what to do with the remaining quarter of students placed into developmental math.

We encourage colleges to examine their placement practices as they roll out new reforms and use descriptive statistics to examine the proportion of students from various subgroups (e.g., by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender) they place into reformed developmental approaches compared with those they leave behind in traditional developmental sequences. Understanding selection into reformed pathways is crucial to improving equity and student success. We also encourage colleges to develop a plan for the students who are not selected for a reformed developmental pathway. They should determine how the college can ensure those students meet their educational goals. Perhaps implementing additional reforms for students who require more intensive remediation (reminiscent of CUNY Start) could help improve the outcomes of those students. In this changing landscape, we should not leave students languishing in a traditional developmental education sequence that scholars and practitioners across the country agree is not fostering success.

Lauren Schudde is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at The University of Texas at Austin.