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

By Olga Rodriguez, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, Hans Johnson

California’s community colleges are in the midst of a major transformation of developmental education. Several colleges have been experimenting with placement and curricular reforms for some time. An examination of the efforts of these early implementers can shed light on the potential impact of system-wide reforms on student outcomes.


Reforming English Pathways at California’s Community Colleges

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

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.

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Reforming Remedial Education in Community College

By Olga Rodriguez, Mina Dadgar

Reforming developmental, or remedial, education is essential to improving students’ success in community colleges. The good news is that there is major support for reform.

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Guided Pathways in Community College

By Olga Rodriguez, Mina Dadgar

Community colleges have begun to adopt a reform known as "guided pathways" to increase completion rates.


Math Placement in California’s Public Schools

By Niu Gao, Sara Adan

Last year, the California Legislature passed a new law—the California Mathematics Placement Act—to address widespread concern over equity in the math placement process. The law is aimed at improving the measurement of student performance in order to move more students successfully through the high school curriculum. In this context, we surveyed California’s school districts during the 2015–16 school year to examine their placement policies right before the law took effect and to identify district needs for technical assistance while implementing the new law. We found that:

  • Districts need help in determining how to proceed. Because the law leaves many details open to local interpretation, many districts are unsure about how to handle certain key elements. Teacher recommendations are a good example. Our survey indicates that the majority of districts have relied on recommendations as an important factor in determining placement. But the law now restricts their use. Improving the law’s clarity is critical going forward.
  • Despite uncertainties, most districts are implementing the new law. Among our respondents, 86 percent reported having a systematic math placement policy. Sixty percent said they are somewhat or very familiar with the new law. Among these districts, 51 percent said they were already in compliance and 42 percent reported revising their policies for compliance purposes.
  • Across districts, there is a strong need for valid, reliable, and objective performance measures. This need applies both to assessing student performance and to evaluating district policies. Districts with the largest gains in student course outcomes over a 10-year period provide some insight. These districts are more likely than others to emphasize test scores, math GPA, and overall GPA when assessing student placement. They are also more likely to use end-of-year math grades to evaluate district placement policies.
  • Districts face a number of other challenges. Districts’ concerns range from handling parental expectations, to needing evidence-based performance measures, to creating better policy alignment within and across schools. In addition, equity issues and staffing shortages present ongoing challenges for many districts.

We recommend several actions for helping districts comply with the law and improve their math placement process. These include establishing evidence-based measures, refining the approach to teacher recommendations, and identifying effective placement protocols. In the longer term, districts would benefit from using student data to improve equity issues and from increased staffing, especially in rural and high-need districts.

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A College Degree in Three Years?

By Patrick Murphy, Kevin Cook

The University of California has promised to develop three-year degree programs on each campus and enroll 5 percent of UC students by the summer of 2017. Reaching this goal will require overcoming significant obstacles.

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