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Blog Post · November 15, 2016

Preparing Community College Students for Success

Each year hundreds of thousands of students entering California’s community colleges are identified as unprepared for college work and placed in remedial courses, also known as developmental education courses. Colleges vary widely in the way they assess and place students—for example, even colleges that use the same test base their placement decisions on different cut-off scores.

The impact of remedial placement is profound. Most students who enroll in a developmental education class never go on to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college. Latino, African American, and low-income students are overrepresented in these courses, raising equity issues at the colleges—the entry point to higher education for most students in the state.

Two PPIC reports document the state of developmental education in California and examine the reforms that have been adopted to change it. Olga Rodriguez, PPIC fellow and coauthor of both reports, presented the findings at a briefing in Sacramento last week, followed by a panel discussion of higher education experts moderated by coauthor Hans Johnson, PPIC senior fellow and director of the PPIC Higher Education Center.

Panelists included Mónica Henestroza, higher education advisor for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon; Myra Snell, math instructor at Los Medanos Community College and cofounder of the California Acceleration Project; and Theresa Tena, vice chancellor of institutional effectiveness in the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

The three panelists emphasized the widespread recognition that reform is needed and under way.

Henestroza said the PPIC reports underscored what she hears directly from students—that they are being sidetracked from pursuing their career goals by developmental education. She also said that the savviest students know that it’s easier to pass placement tests at some colleges than others.

Snell said that when looking at the wide variation in college placement policies and the large numbers of students placed in developmental education, many mistakenly blame high schools for not preparing students. “Really, what we’re beginning to understand is that our definitions of preparedness are problematic.”

She said that student scores on Accuplacer, a commonly used placement test, are not a reliable predictor of college success. Colleges making robust use of multiple measures—including, for example, previous high school work—in placement decisions are seeing higher student success rates, she added.

Snell also pointed to promising reforms elsewhere. Tennessee, for example, enrolls students directly into college-level courses and providing remedial support where it’s needed. In other words, she suggested, reform efforts should focus on bypassing developmental education altogether.

Tena noted that colleges are implementing redesigned courses in developmental education that are intended to improve student outcomes. PPIC is currently conducting research to evaluate these new reforms.

Learn more

Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges
Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center


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