The Unfulfilled Promise of Developmental Education: Effects, Problems, and Current Reforms

By Di Xu

Students raising hands to ask question in lecture hall classroom

Despite the huge costs and high hopes around developmental education, the majority of existing studies have failed to find any consistent positive impacts of developmental coursework on students’ academic outcomes. Fortunately, these studies have not found any significant harm to students assigned to developmental education either. However, considering the time and costs associated with developmental coursework, these “null” effects are upsetting. Some researchers argue that a limitation of the existing research is that studies have focused on evaluating the effects of developmental education on students around the cutoff between developmental and college-level courses and have not considered the effects of developmental education on students identified as having very low skills.

Do the least academically prepared students benefit from developmental coursework? My recent study published in Educational Researcher conducted analyses in a large state community college system where students received one of three placements in reading and writing:

  1. “college-ready,” where students are placed directly into college-level English courses;
  2. a higher level developmental sequence, where students are required to take one developmental course before embarking on college-level coursework; and
  3. a lower level developmental sequence, where the least academically prepared students are required to take two developmental courses.

In my study, I compared outcomes of students who scored barely above the various cutoff scores with those who scored barely below.

The results suggest that developmental courses do differ in their impacts by the level of assignment. Consistent with the existing literature, the estimated effects are generally small in magnitude and statistically insignificant for students on the margin of needing developmental coursework. In contrast, lower level (and therefore longer) developmental sequences lead to negative impacts on various academic outcomes for students with very low skills, including a lower first-year retention rate, a lower probability of ever attempting a college-level English course, a lower number of college-level credits earned, and a lower probability of earning any degree or certificate within five years of initial enrollment. For example, being assigned to lower level developmental reading increases the probability of dropping out within the first year by 6 percentage points, and reduces the probability of ever attempting a college-level English course by 7 percentage points. Students just below the cutoff score for lower-level reading, compared to those just above the cutoff score, earn five fewer total credits and are 7 percentage points less likely to earn any degree or transfer to a four-year college. These negative impacts are mainly driven by outcomes for female students, younger students, and Black students. In another paper that is forthcoming in Community College Review, Mina Dadgar and I examined the impacts both of being assigned to and of enrolling in the lowest level developmental sequence in math in the same state and found similar results.

Besides these two studies, a study by Boatman and Long (2017) provides the only other causal estimate in the literature of the impacts of different levels of developmental English and math on all students. However, the results for their study are substantially different: They identified large negative effects on students on the margin of needing developmental coursework but smaller and sometimes positive effects on students placed in lower level developmental sequences compared with higher level developmental sequences. The mechanisms driving such between-state differences are largely unknown. The two systems may differ in multiple ways, including in terms of student characteristics, developmental education assignment and enforcement policies, the specific developmental education curriculum, and student academic support, all of which may lead to differences in the estimated impacts of developmental education. These between-state differences highlight the necessity for future studies to uncover how specific design features of developmental programs may influence student outcomes, and draw attention to the importance for colleges and systems to conduct their own analyses to assess the effectiveness of developmental coursework when contemplating reforming or eliminating programs.

What might be driving the negative impacts?

Why might lower level developmental education hurt students’ academic progress? To understand this question, it helps to look at two main theoretical models for how developmental education might influence students’ academic outcomes and motivation.

The assistance model hypothesizes that developmental education helps students with inadequate preparation catch up with other students by developing their skills and knowledge to college-ready standards. As a result, while enrollment in developmental coursework may delay college progress at first, students should reap benefits over the long-term, such as a greater chance of passing college-level courses and a higher college persistence rate.

However, this model is based on several assumptions that are yet to be verified:

  1. that there are well-defined criteria for what students need to know to be ready for a college-level course, which could be effectively delivered through developmental coursework;
  2. that the assessment and assignment criteria to divide students into “developmental” and “college-ready” populations correctly identify students who can benefit from the developmental content; and
  3. that any benefit in acquiring the relevant knowledge and skills outweighs the additional financial and academic burden on students, the additional opportunities for students to leak out of the system, and any stigma associated with being assigned to developmental education coursework.

In contrast, the hindrance model suggests that any benefit from skills and knowledge development in developmental courses is outweighed by one or more of the following costs to students:

  1. the direct cost of taking additional courses that do not contribute toward a degree or certificate;
  2. the cost of additional time spent in the classroom, as well as delayed access to college-level courses; and
  3. the psychological cost of feeling stigmatized for not being ready for college-level coursework.

The negative impacts of imposing such a burden on students may be even stronger if these courses do not develop students’ skills that are useful in follow-up courses. Indeed, extensive qualitative evidence suggests that the drill-and-practice approach emphasized in most developmental courses is not directly connected to the type of work students must perform in college-level courses. As a result, developmental courses “fail to clarify for students the reasons for or the importance of learning these subskills” (Grubb, 2013, p. 52) and may not achieve their goal of preparing students for college coursework. Thus, the limited benefits of developmental education may be outweighed by the substantial costs resulting from the inability to make progress toward a degree among students assigned to lower level developmental sequences that require multiple courses.

What are colleges doing to improve developmental education outcomes?

During the past few years, there has been a national effort to reform the traditional developmental sequence. In the state where my study published in Educational Researcher was conducted, for example, all community colleges introduced a comprehensive redesign of the developmental education sequence and are continuing to refine those efforts based on promising approaches in the field. The most popular strategies that have been implemented across the country fall under one of the following categories, and it is fairly common for a community college or state system to implement multiple strategies at the same time:

  • Acceleration: This type of developmental redesign aims to help students complete their developmental math or English requirements more quickly by shortening developmental sequences, aligning the developmental curriculum to college-level course content, and allowing students who place into the highest developmental course to take college-level and developmental courses in a given subject concurrently. In the state where my study was conducted, for instance, developmental reading and writing sequences were combined into a single shorter developmental English sequence. Similar models in other states have had a positive impact on students’ likelihood of completing college English and on college credit accumulation (e.g., Edgecombe, Jaggars, Xu, & Barragan, 2014; Jaggars, Hodara, Cho, & Xu, 2015).
  • Modularization: In contrast to traditional developmental sequence that involves semester-long coursework, an alternative approach is to “modularize” the content by dividing it up into distinct topics that address specific competencies or skills. These topics are typically taught as a series of one-credit modules, and students are required to take only the modules where the diagnostic placement test indicates a need for improvement and that are required for their field of study. The goal is to provide more targeted support for students’ individual needs and reduce the time required to complete developmental education. A recent MDRC report that evaluated modularized math identified preliminary positive impacts on students’ progress in developmental coursework after one year (Gardenhire, Diamond, Headlam, & Weiss, 2016).
  • Curriculum Redesign and Pathways: This type of reform aims to improve course content and delivery through means such as better alignment of developmental coursework with college-level courses and enhanced professional development for course instructors. A curricular math reform that is growing in popularity nationwide replaces the traditional algebra-focused developmental math curriculum with “alternative” pathways to address the specific competencies or skills in different fields of study. For example, one popular alternative approach replaces the algebra-based curriculum with statistics-based sequences for liberal arts students. These new statistics-based pathways focus on mathematics content that can be applied to solve everyday problems—content that may be more closely aligned with the skills liberal arts students need to succeed in their degree programs and the labor market.
  • Using Multiple Measures for Placement: Most institutions assign students to remediation by having them take a single placement test in mathematics, reading, and/or writing, such as the ACCUPLACER. Recent research suggests that inaccurate placement into developmental education is pervasive. A variety of new approaches to developmental education assessment and placement have been proposed or implemented. These alternative approaches converge in the use of multiple measures to predict student performance in college-level courses and then place students based on a combination of information, including high school GPA, state exit exam scores, ACT or SAT scores, placement test scores, and sometimes even noncognitive assessments.

In general, all these reformed approaches attempt to optimize the benefits of the “assistance model” of developmental education while minimizing the challenges of the “hindrance model.” While these strategies are promising on a theoretical basis, more rigorously conducted evaluations are still needed to understand their impacts on various student outcomes, their implementation fidelity, and their benefits relative to their costs. As states and colleges search for new strategies to support academically underprepared students, it is important for colleges to conduct studies to document how a particular strategy is implemented and the costs associated with its implementation, as well as evaluate the impacts of each strategy on student academic progress and success and share their findings widely with other colleges.

Di Xu is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a research affiliate with the Community College Research Center (CCRC).