When colleges require students to take one to two years of remedial courses that don't count toward transfer or degrees, they guarantee that very few students will make it.

With every layer of remediation required, students' completion drops. (If you don't believe it, data for every college in the state is available on the Basic Skills Cohort Tracker.) Across California, among students who begin one course below transfer-level in math, 35% go on to complete a transferable course within three years. For students who take two remedial courses, completion drops to 15%. Three or more remedial courses: 6%. 

Many colleges have implemented redesigned developmental courses that are open to any student and lead directly into a transfer-level English or math course. These classes don't look like traditional remediation. Instead, they're developed through a process of "backward design," giving students practice with the skills, content, and ways of thinking required in the college-level course they'll take for their program of study. 

In English, this looks like "junior varsity" college English, where students read books, think critically, and write essays, but with more coaching and scaffolding than in the higher level. 

In math, remediation is tailored to students' chosen pathway: algebra for students heading into math-intensive fields (e.g., engineering, math, Business), pre-statistics courses for other students. And the pre-stats courses don't just cover the traditional list of Elementary and Intermediate Algebra topics (or a "light" version of the list). Instead, students work on quantitative reasoning and the study of statistics, with just-in-time remediation of only the skills they need for the work at hand. The goal is not to remediate all of their K-12 math, but to support them in their college-level work. 

The RP Group studied student outcomes of 16 colleges that redesigned remediation with the California Acceleration Project. Controlling for differences in student characteristics, the researchers compared student completion of transfer-level English and math courses in accelerated models with the traditional remedial sequences and found:

  • Students' odds of completing college English were 2.3 times higher in "high acceleration" models -- that is, models that enabled students to move directly into college English with no additional courses or administrative hurdles.
  • In redesigned statistics pathways, students' odds of completing a transfer-level course were 4.5 times higher than in traditional remediation.

All students benefited from acceleration, including all racial/ethnic groups, economically disadvantaged students, students with low placement scores, students with disabilities, and students from an ESL background. Further, in a follow-up analysis of descriptive data, the researchers found that the achievement gap between African-American and Asian students -- the largest gap in traditional remediation -- was completely eliminated in CAP statistics pathways across 8 colleges.

Issues to Consider

Not as Powerful as Corequisite Models: When compared to traditional English and math remediation, two-semester pathways produce large gains in completion of transfer-level courses. However, even requiring a single semester of remediation means that a lot of students will be lost to attrition before reaching that important early momentum point:

Completion of transfer-level math and English tends to be 20 to 30 percentage points lower in two-semester pathways than in structures where students can begin directly in a transfer-level course (regular or with corequisite support)

Open-Access: It's counter-intuitive for many faculty, but the research is clear that even the lowest-scoring students have better outcomes in accelerated models (corequisite and two-semester pathways). Lower-scoring students benefit from being in a mixed environment with stronger students. And while they may have lower pass rates than students with higher scores, they are more likely to complete a college-level course if they start one-level-below college than if they had to take multiple semesters of remediation with high rates of attrition

Backward Design Key: Accelerated developmental courses should not be just crammed with everything covered in 2-3 semesters of traditional remediation. Instead, they should give students practice in the skills, content, and habits of mind required in the transfer-level course they'll take. This is especially important in math. At colleges that have shortened their developmental course sequence but retained a heavy algebra emphasis for all students, increases in completion of transfer-level math have been more modest than in redesigned courses that prepare students for the study of statistics.

Integrated Reading and Writing: When instruction combines attention to reading and writing, students learn more deeply and are more likely to complete college-level courses. A growing number of colleges are designing accelerated, integrated courses with course outlines that list either "English" or "Reading" faculty as meeting the minimum teaching qualifications. This solution bypasses the turf battles that can characterize colleges with separate reading and English departments, building a structure that is better for students while ensuring that neither faculty group is disenfranchised.

Faculty Development: Redesigned English and math pathways often require faculty to change how they teach. In English, faculty often need to learn to integrate reading and writing, increase the level of challenge in their reading and writing assignments, and reduce the class time devoted to explicit grammar instruction. In redesigned math pathways, faculty need to move away from traditional algebra topics and teach statistics, a subject many of them have never studied. Faculty need professional development and support to be effective in redesigned pathways.

What about ESL? ESL course sequences face the same attrition as remedial English and math. With each additional course in the sequence, student completion of college English drops. But the acceleration conversation is newer in ESL, and faculty are grappling with how to provide accelerated language instruction and serve the needs of different student populations (e.g., students who want a fast track to transfer, immigrant grandparents seeking conversational English for their daily lives). A pre-conference session will be devoted to this topic at the Statewide Acceleration Conference in March 2017.

Christopher Rogers

Christopher Rogers

Christopher Rogers enrolled at College of the Canyons in 2012 to become a nurse. Despite what he calls “extreme math anxiety,” he studied hard for the placement test and was placed into a class one level below a transferable math course.

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Lulu Matute

Lulu Matute

Enrolling at City College of San Francisco, Lulu didn't understand the high stakes of the placement test, didn't prepare for it, and was required to start in the lowest level of remedial math.

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A number of colleges have transformed remediation so that no student is required to take more than one semester of remedial English before college composition, including College of the Redwoods, Irvine Valley, Lake Tahoe, Lassen, Los Medanos, Moreno Valley, Mt. San Jacinto College, and Solano colleges.

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