Two-Course Pathways Don't Maximize Completion

In the first several years of CAP, we helped colleges develop two-course pathways in which students could take one accelerated developmental English course, or one pre-stats course, and then complete a transfer-level course within a year. The results were a big improvement over requiring students to take two, three, or four remedial courses.

But we no longer recommend these models. Under California’s new law (AB705), students have the right to begin in courses that give them the best chance of completing transfer-level English and math within a year.  

The research is clear that corequisite models – in which students enroll directly in a transfer-level course with concurrent support – produce far higher completion than remedial prerequisite courses, including one-semester accelerated courses (see graphs on right). 

In a statewide study of colleges offering corequisite models in 2016-17, the Public Policy Institute of California found that 

  • 78% of corequisite students successfully completed college-level English composition within a year, a rate three times higher than traditional remedial prerequisite courses and also substantially higher than one-semester accelerated courses;
  • Approximately 70% of students completed a corequisite Statistics course in a year, two to three times the rate of students taking in a pre-statistics course.

Why Is Completion So Much Lower in Two-Course Pathways?


Attrition is Guaranteed

How good would a two-course pathway have to be to beat the 78% completion rate at the first nine California colleges offering corequisite models in English?

In these pathways, students face three exit points where they can be lost to attrition. They have to pass the first course, enroll in the second course, and pass the second course. Even if outcomes were spectacular at each exit point -- if 90% of students passed the first course, 90% enrolled in the next course, and 90% passed the second course – completion would still be less than in the corequisite models:

.90 x .90 x .90 = 73%

And remember: Under AB705, only students who are “highly unlikely” to succeed in the transfer-level course could even be considered for the two-course pathway.

Who Can Be Required to Take a Two-Course Pathway Under AB705?


Probably No One

Under AB705, colleges can only delay students’ progress to degree with a remedial course if they can demonstrate that this placement will make the student more likely to complete their transferable English and math requirements. To date, research has not identified a single group of students who meet this criterion.

The Multiple Measures Assessment Project has analyzed data from high schools and community colleges across California and found that all students - including those with the lowest high school grades - have higher completion when allowed to enroll directly in transfer-level English and math classes (even without concurrent support) than when they begin in one remedial course below transfer level. As summarized in a memo from the state Chancellor’s Office:

  • Students with a high school GPA of 2.6 or above pass College English at a rate of 80% statewide, but if they begin one remedial course below College English, just 40% complete College English in a year.
  • Even the lowest 10% of students in the statewide sample, those with a GPA below 1.9, do more than three times better enrolling directly in College English than starting in a remedial course -- 43% vs. 12% completion.

While some colleges may point to data showing that their two-course pathway is effective, it’s important to keep in mind that these pathways have historically included a large proportion of under-placed students who now have the right to enroll directly in a transfer-level class.

The state Chancellor’s Office has offered the following guidance regarding “special programs in which students start in non-transferable coursework (e.g., an accelerated two-semester sequence)”:

“Colleges will still need to honor students’ right to enroll in transfer-level courses unless it can be demonstrated that students are highly unlikely to succeed. The burden of proof is not on the student but on the college to demonstrate that transfer-directed students with the lowest likelihood of success in the transfer-level course have a better chance of completing transfer-level coursework if required to enroll in the special program.”

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).

One-Year Completion of College Composition

One-Year Completion of Transfer-Level Math

In other states that have implemented corequisite models at a large scale -- such as Colorado, West Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee -- student completion rates are now 2 to 5 times higher than they had been with prerequisite remediation.
After several years of supporting colleges across the nation to develop one-year math pathways, the Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin is now advising colleges against these approaches and recommending single-semester corequisite models: “Caution: Research clearly shows that transition points lead to attrition.”
At most colleges offering Statway, students enroll in a two-course “stretch” model to complete College Statistics. While this model has been far more effective than traditional remediation, attrition between the first and second courses accounts for 36% of Statway students who don’t complete college Statistics. When 5 colleges adapted the two-semester model into a single-semester course, completion of College Statistics increased from 50% in a year to 67% in a semester.

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