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Report · August 2018

Remedial Education Reforms at California’s Community Colleges: Early Evidence on Placement and Curricular Reforms

Olga Rodriguez, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Hans Johnson

This research was supported with funding from the California Acceleration Project and the Sutton Family Fund.

Each year about a quarter million students enroll for the first time in English and math courses in California’s community colleges. The vast majority of these students are placed in developmental (or remedial) courses from which relatively few emerge and go on to achieve their educational goals. Indeed, most never complete a transfer-level course in English or math. Seeking to improve student outcomes, a few colleges have been experimenting with either placement reform and/or with reforms to the curricula and course structure of their developmental education offerings, but not at the scale that is needed to see systemwide improvements. The passage of Assembly Bill 705 broadened the scope and accelerated the pace of change: new reforms, to be fully implemented in fall 2019, hold the potential to dramatically transform this record of failure. These reforms will change the assessment and placement of incoming students in English and math, shifting the focus from standardized tests to high school records (an approach known as multiple measures). Full implementation of AB 705 most likely will result in colleges placing the majority of their entering students in transfer-level courses. Additional curricular redesign efforts, including co-curricular support, are intended to further improve the likelihood of success, especially among students with the lowest high school performance levels. Many colleges are expected to provide co-requisite courses-pairing the transfer-level course with a support course-for students who need additional support to pass college-level courses in English and math.

By looking at early implementers of these reforms, this study is the first to provide a comprehensive examination of multiple measures placement and co-requisite remediation in California community colleges. As all colleges move toward compliance with AB 705, this study sheds light on what colleges can expect to see in terms of both student outcomes and implementation challenges. As of the 2016-17 academic year, we find that the early implementation of these reforms has been more common in English than in math, and that most colleges have not yet implemented the reforms at full scale. Even so, at early implementer colleges reforms seem to be accomplishing most of their goals:

  • Colleges that have implemented the reforms have seen substantial gains in student access to transfer-level courses and commensurate declines in enrollment in developmental education.
  • As substantially more students enter transfer-level courses, course success rates have remained relatively stable and throughput-the share of students completing a transfer-level course-has increased.
  • Increases in completion of transfer-level courses have occurred for every demographic group, but equity gaps remain.
  • The magnitude of the improvements varies across colleges, but every college that implemented placement reforms saw notable increases in throughput.

As colleges across the state adopt and scale placement and developmental education reforms to comply with the requirements of AB 705, they will need to focus on narrowing equity gaps, supporting professional development, providing students with an effective support structure, and taking the necessary steps to accommodate a growing number of entering students enrolling directly in transfer-level courses. State leaders and CCC, UC, and CSU officials will need to work together to plan for a likely increase in the number of community college students who are transfer-eligible.

The early results of placement and curricular reforms show great promise, but rigorous research will be needed to track their long-term impact once they have been implemented statewide.


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