A Brief History of Developmental Research and Reform

A group of students walk around campus together

Over a decade ago, an analysis of longitudinal student records from the Achieving the Dream initiative made plain how many community college students were lost along multicourse, prerequisite sequences, and how few students completed gateway English and math courses [1], raising questions about the overall benefits of developmental education. A variety of rigorous studies followed and showed that developmental students never made up for the time lost in their first semester; their academic outcomes were no better, and were sometimes even worse, than similar students who did not take developmental education courses [2–6]. A few positive results were scattered among null and negative results in some rigorous studies [e.g., 7], but no study has shown consistently positive results for the traditional multicourse, prerequisite developmental education system [8].

Developmental education assessment and placement systems have also received scrutiny. Until recently, virtually all broad-access colleges were using standardized tests and relatively arbitrary cutoff scores to assess students’ college readiness and place them into courses [9–11]. However, quasi-experimental studies revealed the detrimental effects of assessment and placement systems that relied on standardized test scores on course completion and college progress, as many students who could have succeeded in college-level courses were instead placed into a remedial sequence [12–14]. Researchers then showed that measures other than standardized test scores, such as students’ high school performance, could more accurately predict their postsecondary success [15, 16]. Additionally, qualitative studies conducted inside classrooms revealed that multi-semester, prerequisite course sequences are poorly aligned with college-level courses and rely on rote instructional practices that do not promote learning [17, 18]. These findings prompted researchers to theorize that the content and pedagogy of developmental education courses was inhibiting students’ progress [19–22].

With evidence mounting that traditional developmental education was shortchanging students, practitioners and researchers alike began envisioning new approaches, developing specific interventions, and advocating for reform [e.g., 23–27]. Dating back to the 1990s and spanning three somewhat overlapping phases, reforms aspired to first strengthen student supports and then alter developmental education structure and content, before most recently integrating developmental education and comprehensive college reforms. Complementary bodies of research have evaluated the effects and documented the implementation of the interventions of each phase, informing the next generation of reform.

First Phase of Reform and Research: Bolstering Student Supports

Initially, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers developed interventions to provide additional support to students in developmental education rather than fundamentally alter the courses themselves. These interventions included enhancing first-year advising [28, 29], putting students into learning communities [30–32], and implementing one-semester student orientation courses to help ease the transition to college [33, 34]. Colleges and states also experimented with early assessment programs, which offered developmental education assessments in high school so that students could focus on building college readiness in their senior year [35, 36].

Though studies of these interventions showed they had statistically significant effects on developmental course completion and semester-to-semester persistence during the semesters of the intervention or just after [37–39], they also revealed that the interventions had few, if any, long-lasting effects on students’ year-to-year persistence, credit accumulation, or academic progress in college [40, 41]. The primary conclusion from this work was that smaller, short-term interventions that only affected students for a minimal amount of time did not make much difference in longer-term academic success.

Second Phase of Reform and Research: Changing Developmental Education Policy and Practice

The sobering results from this initial research pointed to fundamental problems with developmental education practices and policies. In response, a second wave of reforms focused on changes to the assessment and placement of students into developmental courses, as well as course structure, sequencing, and instruction. National organizations, such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, developed major initiatives that shortened developmental math course sequences and revised developmental math course content to align with students’ majors [42, 43]. States and colleges also experimented with shortening developmental course sequences by reducing the number of developmental education courses offered [44]; combining developmental reading and writing into one course [45–47]; compressing and modularizing course content [48–50]; and placing students who would have formerly taken developmental courses into corequisite courses, which are college-level classes with added supports [51–55].

“As the second phase of developmental education reform and research matured, it became clear that discrete reforms to one dimension of the student experience were not likely to improve graduation rates.”

Efforts to rigorously evaluate these types of interventions accelerated in the past five years, due in large part to substantial investments by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education in CAPR and other research projects intended to establish evidence on effectiveness. CAPR’s random assignment study of multiple measures assessment and placement found that students placed using multiple measures were more likely to be assigned to and complete college-level courses, though gains in college-level enrollment and completion in English were larger and longer-lasting than in math [56]. Additionally, a CAPR random assignment study of mathematics pathways interventions found positive impacts on the successful completion of college-level mathematics [57] and a second study found impacts on graduation rates [58]. Other studies, however, have yielded more disappointing results from interventions implemented during the second phase of reform. For example, CAPR’s quasi-experimental analysis of Early Start, a required summer remediation program offered by the California State University system, found that students enrolled in the program earned fewer credits and were less likely to persist relative to similar peers [59]. Other recent quasi-experimental research on transition courses in math offered in high school and technology-mediated developmental math instruction also failed to show positive outcomes [60, 61].

Third Phase of Reform and Research: Integrating Developmental Education and Comprehensive Reform

As the second phase of developmental education reform and research matured, it became clear that discrete reforms to one dimension of the student experience were not likely to improve graduation rates. Practitioners, policymakers, and researchers studying advising, instruction, financial aid, and other topics came to similar conclusions. This broader recognition ushered in the third phase of reform, in which the field has turned toward comprehensive, whole-college reforms that strategically integrate multiple interventions spanning students’ college lives [62]. The evidence on the potential of comprehensive reforms is beginning to build but remains incomplete.

“Where have these phases left the field? Over half of U.S. states now mandate or recommend developmental education reforms.”

Central to this work has been the development and implementation of the guided pathways framework, a process of whole-college redesign that clarifies pathways to credential completion, enhances advising services, and improves progress monitoring to ensure students stay on a pathway to success [63, 64]. Under the guided pathways model, reforms like corequisite remediation are viewed as on-ramps to well-designed and supported academic and career pathways rather than as strategies that can improve student outcomes on their own. Today, over 400 colleges nationally are implementing some form of guided pathways, and research is beginning to examine the relationship between guided pathways implementation and student outcomes [65]. Colleges are also looking toward holistic models, like the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which incentivizes full-time enrollment while providing wraparound academic and financial support and has doubled graduation rates for participating students [66]. Influential intermediary organizations, such as Complete College America and Achieving the Dream, now provide blueprints for implementing these types of comprehensive reforms, arguing that doing so will produce larger effects on students’ academic trajectories.

Where have these phases left the field? Over half of U.S. states now mandate or recommend developmental education reforms. Numerous states have reduced the number of developmental courses that colleges can offer [67–69], and some states have eliminated the requirement for developmental education altogether [70, 71]. The enthusiasm for this work is encouraging; however, the rapid pace of reform means that practitioners and policymakers are often changing practices in the absence of evidence on their effectiveness, or are only offering reformed approaches at a small scale [72]. At the same time, colleges are seeking guidance about the best approaches to reduce gaps by race and other student characteristics.

Originally funded in 2014 as a five-year IES center, CAPR has contributed to rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of multiple measures placement and math pathways in improving student success. With additional grants, CAPR is continuing to research effective developmental reforms with a specific focus on what works for which student populations, the policies and practices that support effective implementation at scale, and strategies to improve equitable outcomes.

This summary was compiled by Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow, Nikki Edgecombe, and Susan Bickerstaff.


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