Programmatic Practices that Promote Student Success in Community College Math Developmental Education: A Mixed Methods Study
Meza, Elizabeth Jane
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Almost half of all college students in the U.S. attend community colleges; almost sixty percent of these students are referred to remedial English, reading or math through means of a standardized placement exam, with math being a the greatest area of need. While these courses, often as many as four in a sequence, are meant to be a boost for students unprepared for college-level coursework, they have low success rates and few students make it through the entire sequence to succeed in a first college-level math course, leaving them far short of graduation or a meaningful credential. While developmental (aka remedial) education, those courses or sequences of courses below the college-level, has received a lot of attention recently due to its high costs and low student success rates, current research has largely failed to document, examine, or classify programmatic approaches to developmental education. This lack of information that would facilitate analysis is due in part to the relatively recent recognition of the problem, but it is also because of the difficulty accessing reliable information about large numbers of programs and the range of definitions, student populations, and perceived quickly shifting innovations (some may go as far as to say educational fads) that developmental education programs encompass. Unfortunately, this lack of a comprehensive picture of developmental education programs has led to either the complete elimination of the programs as unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive for students, or to a focus on a number of disparate approaches with little underlying theory behind them or even agreement as to the problem. This research is centered in 28 Washington state community college campuses and examines a mixed methods approach to answer three main questions: 1) To what extent and in what ways do math developmental program elements vary across institutions? Developmental education may vary widely even within one relatively homogenous state system of community colleges, such as the system in Washington. Programs have differing resources devoted to them, as well as differing pedagogy, intervention strategies and approaches, student referral and advancement policies, etc., and this variation has not even been fully described in previous research. 2) To what extent do student outcomes, as measured by completion of the developmental sequence, completion of a first college-level math course, and highest education reached, vary across the different math developmental education programs, after controlling for student characteristics, among the 28 community colleges in Washington State? What proportion of overall variance is contributed by student characteristics vs. programmatic factors? Wide institutional variation has been found in previous outcomes studies of professional-technical programs leading to terminal associate degrees in Washington, suggesting that institutional or programmatic variables may be contributing significantly to student success or lack of it (Scott-Clayton & Weiss, 2011). 3) What program policies and practices seem to be associated with positive outcomes for developmental education students? Can developmental education programs be categorized in some meaningful way? Is there a “typology” or categorization of programs that identifies characteristics that seem to be associated with either positive or negative results? For example, do schools with better (or worse) results, net of student characteristics, share identifiable programmatic characteristics in terms of policy and practice variables that are positively or negatively associated with student outcomes? I find from this research that strategies such as reducing the total number of courses in developmental education pathways, implementing alternatives to placement in developmental math via standardized tests, and better preparing students for assessment, are associated with greater student success in completing the developmental math sequence and in completing a first college level course. I also find that colleges with these more innovative features are significantly more successful than their more traditional institutional peers in terms of student outcomes. However, I also find no variation between colleges in the outcome of highest education reached, after controlling for student background characteristics. It seems that, at least for this sample, college did not have a significant association with ultimate educational attainment. Diving deeper to examine colleges’ policies, practices, and the perspectives of students, faculty, and administrators, I find wide variation in pathways, program structure, assessment policies, connection to advising, tutoring, and institutional research departments, and day-to-day concerns and operations. One commonality is the conviction that teaching that addresses student motivation and confidence in their ability to learn math and peaks their interest, factors not usually examined systematically in higher education policy research, is central to developmental education student success. This research informs strategies for increased college completion for underprepared students. College completion has emerged as of paramount importance in fostering U.S. economic development and global competitiveness, yet if half of college students are unprepared for college work and thus are unlikely to persist to degree completion despite their motivation to attend college, serious attention should be paid to what can be done to increase their odds of success.
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