Analysis: Florida’s developmental education reform worked

The statewide developmental education reform efforts in Florida have increased the number of students taking and passing general education requirements in math and English, according to a study published in this month's Educational Researcher journal.

The study compared cohorts before and after the reform was passed through the state's Senate Bill 1720 in 2013. Cohorts after the reform were more likely to enroll in and pass introductory college-level courses in their first year of college.

Black and Hispanic students saw even greater gains in passing rates than their white peers, the study found.

Higher education has seen ongoing efforts to reform developmental education, also called remedial education. Experts argue that minority and low-income students are more likely to be shuffled into developmental education. Traditional developmental education sequences can take multiple semesters to complete, delaying students' progress and potentially discouraging them to the point where they drop out of college.

"The data in the Florida study confirm what other studies have shown: students placed in long developmental math sequence rarely make it into a college-level math course, much less complete the course," said Martha Ellis, interim managing director of the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which focuses on improving student success in math and science. "Research, such as this study, show that the main drivers of high failure rates are not the capabilities of the students or the commitment and skill of faculty, but rather how programs were structured and the barriers these structures imposed on students."

This study shows that reforms can successfully bring more students into college-level courses, said Toby Park-Gaghan, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of the economics of education and education policy at Florida State University.

Historically, up to 70 percent of first-time community college students in Florida were enrolled in at least one development education course. The 2013 legislation exempted students from college placement tests and development coursework if they entered a public high school after 2002. The reform also required colleges to change the way they offered developmental education, mostly by compressing those courses or using corequisite alternatives so that students could move on to college-level courses more quickly. Lastly, the reform required colleges to enhance their advising services so students would be more aware of their developmental course options and support services like tutoring.

Several other states have been taking smaller steps toward reform, said Christine Mokher, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of higher education at FSU. Florida's multipronged approach and subsequent success could be a lesson for other states to combine strategies, she said.

"Those three things together created a synergy that likely wouldn't have been achieved if Florida had just done one on its own," she said.

Florida's approach also moves away from a deficit-based framework, said Elizabeth Kopko, senior research associate at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College at Columbia University.

"Instead of focusing on preparing students for college-level courses or more accurately measuring college preparedness, Florida's set of reforms aim to improve student success in college-level courses by improving the quality of teaching and learning and the supports available to students," Kopko said.

The best developmental education reforms, she said, are those that push more students into college-level courses.

"Developmental education diverts student money and time away from college-level courses, lengthens time to degree, and often discourages meaningful progress towards completion," she said.

Passing rates for English composition and intermediate algebra were at 47.9 percent and 20.8 percent, respectively, in 2013 before the reforms took place when looking at all the students who entered a cohort in a given year. One year after the reforms took effect, passing rates for English composition and intermediate algebra jumped by 4.4 and 3.4 percentage points. The passing rate for college-level math courses increased by 1.8 percentage points in the first year after the reform but then jumped 5.4 percentage points above the 2013 rate of 16.7 percent in the second year after the reform.

​"The magnitude of these effects were large for a statewide effort," especially one without significant funding, Mokher said, adding later that, "there was some concern that these students would be underprepared and would perform worse. But the pass rates in those courses were actually similar."

​People expected students to fail, but the passing rates didn't change much on a course-by-course basis, and they increased when looking at whole cohorts because so many more students were taking college-level courses, Park-Gaghan said.

The reform also helped to close the equity gap among students of different races, he said. Hispanic and Black students increased their enrollment in college-level courses at faster rates than their white peers. For example, in English composition, white students saw an increase of 7.5 percentage points (from about 67 percent) in their enrollment rate after developmental reforms were passed. Hispanic saw 12.8-percentage-point gains (from 61.7 percent) and Black students 22.6-percentage-point gains (from 49.5 percent).

Park-Gaghan has also analyzed how different levels of preparedness affected the results by looking at students who failed a high school math class, for example. The enrollment and passing rates increased the most for those students, he said. They performed at lower rates than students who earned A's in high school math, but nevertheless their projections increased.

"A lot of these fears that we have are kind of unfounded," he said.

Park-Gaghan hopes the COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate this reform movement. Many colleges have eliminated placement tests during this time, he said. Florida no longer uses those tests, and passing rates have not suffered greatly for it.

"Why go back to it?" he said.

​Some institutions are more quickly moving toward using multiple measures to place students as testing becomes obsolete in a COVID-19 world, Ellis said. Research has shown that this method of placing students into courses is more accurate than using placement tests alone.

Student support services may also be more accessible now that many have gone virtual due to the pandemic, Mokher said. Anecdotally, she's heard that more students are attending office hours with professors now that they can do so by simply clicking a button. Greater access to these resources could help more students complete college-level requirements for math and English on their first attempt.

Kopko also hopes that colleges will continue this momentum of rethinking placement tests and assessment tools.

"Developmental education reforms that increase student access to and enrollment in college-level courses are among the most promising avenues for improving student success," she said.

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