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Report · February 2018

Reforming English Pathways at California’s Community Colleges

Hans Johnson, Olga Rodriguez, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Bonnie Brooks

This research was supported with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, College Futures Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.

California’s community colleges are in the midst of numerous reforms to improve developmental (also known as remedial or basic skills) education. Developmental education is supposed to help prepare students for college work, but it has long been an obstacle to student success: most students in developmental courses never go on to complete a college-level course in English or math.

In this report, we focus on reforms to developmental English pathways at California’s community colleges. We examine different approaches to reform and their prevalence, and present new evidence on the effectiveness of one of the most common reforms, one-semester acceleration. We find:

  • The structure and length of developmental English pathways vary considerably. Depending on their college, students in developmental English may face between one and seven courses before they can enroll in college composition. Twenty-two colleges offer a traditional pathway, which involves stand-alone reading and writing courses. Reforms differ in their scope and intensity: 46 colleges have integrated all of their reading and writing courses, and 25 offer a mix of integrated and stand-alone courses. Thirty colleges offer one-semester acceleration, and seven colleges allow students placed into developmental English to enroll directly in college composition with concurrent support (known as a co-requisite model).
  • One-semester acceleration substantially shortens the typical developmental pathway. At colleges offering this reform, students placed into developmental English can enroll in a highly intensive course that leads directly to college composition. This course often integrates reading, writing, and critical thinking. Even though these courses only served about 9.4 percent of first-time developmental education students in 2016-17, enrollment has grown rapidly in the last few years.
  • Students who take one-semester acceleration have better outcomes. Overall, students who start in one-semester acceleration have a greater likelihood of completing college composition within two years, compared to those who start two or three levels below college composition (42% versus 27% and 14%, respectively). We see improved outcomes across ethnic, gender, and income groups. Moreover, we find that students who take one-semester acceleration are adequately prepared for college-level work. Success rates in college composition are similar for students in accelerated and non-accelerated pathways.
  • Despite improvements, most students in accelerated courses do not complete college composition. Even with one-semester acceleration, only 42 percent of students go on to pass college composition within two years-a much smaller share than for students who do not take developmental English (77%). Colleges should look for additional ways to improve pathways for developmental English students, and the co-requisite model is emerging as a promising approach.
  • Equity gaps remain large for underrepresented students. For example, 31 percent of African Americans who start in one-semester acceleration go on to complete college composition, compared to 52 percent of Asian Americans. Our interviews suggest that pedagogical and curricular reforms’such as the use of culturally relevant topics, collaborative group activities, and attention to affective issues that influence student learning-can help engage students and address achievement gaps.

Our findings add to the body of evidence showing promising results for students in accelerated courses, but more work needs to be done. As colleges continue to explore different reforms, they should make one-semester acceleration available to more students. But establishing and implementing best practices in course redesign and pedagogy will be critical to successfully scaling up this approach. In recent years, colleges have adopted wide-ranging reforms, and additional research is necessary to assess whether these efforts are improving student outcomes consistently and narrowing achievement gaps. Identifying effective reforms and bringing them to scale will help more California students achieve their academic and career goals.


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