Developing a New Approach to Developmental

Perhaps we need to trash developmental and start over. (For the record, I teach and love teaching developmental. I was hired to do this job and I enjoy it. I have taught developmental since I began my teaching career 27 years ago.)

Community College Dean has been thinking about this and wrote a post that I think has significant thoughtful suggestions.

At the League for Innovation conference a few weeks ago, some folks from the Community College Research Center presented some pretty compelling research that suggested several things. First, it found zero predictive validity in the placement tests that sentence students to developmental classes. Students who simply disregarded the placement and went directly into college-level courses did just as well as students who did as they were told. We’ve found something similar on my own campus. Last year, in an attempt to see if our “cut scores” were right, I asked the IR office and a math professor to see if there was a natural cliff in the placement test scores that would suggest the right levels for placing students into the various levels of developmental math. I had assumed that higher scores on the test would correlate with higher pass rates, and that the gently-slanting line would turn vertical at some discrete point. We could put the cutoff at that point, and thereby maximize the effectiveness of our program.

It didn’t work. Not only was there no discrete dropoff; there was no correlation at all between test scores and course performance. None. Zero. The placement test offered precisely zero predictive power.

Second, the CCRC found that the single strongest predictor of student success that’s actually under the college’s control — so I’m ignoring gender and income of student, since we take all comers — is length of sequence. The shorter the sequence, the better they do. The worst thing you can do, from a student success perspective, is to address perceived student deficits by adding more layers of remediation. If anything, you need to prune levels. Each new level provides a new ‘exit point’ — the goal should be to minimize the exit points.

I’m excited about these findings, since they explain a few things and suggest an actual path for action.

I think this would be something my own college could do, track success rates, and see what it means to be developmental at our school. If we have some other way of organizing, perhaps we could help it work for our students better.

My alma mater has “dropped” the two developmental courses and has a single sequence by which previously labeled developmental classes take a year-long freshman comp first semester course. This gives the teacher and the students time to ramp up the writing and helps the students feel it is worthwhile by giving college level credit for it.

Yes, there are some students who would not survive with this approach and our students at the CC may be among them, but I think it is worth considering.

2 thoughts on “Developing a New Approach to Developmental”

  1. At our branch campuses (where it is mostly night classes for older students coming back to school), because of low enrollment, our two levels of developmental English take the “same” class. I didn’t make any real effort to figure out who belonged in which class, and (again, because of low enrollment) was able to treat each student as an individual, regardless of test scores. Each student passed, and I didn’t hold any of the students to a higher or lower standard; each student could, in my evaluation, have moved on to the regular Freshman Writing class, although half of the class was required to now do the second level of developmental writing.

    Elsewhere where I’ve taught, there’s been tiers of developmental writing, but regardless, once you passes, the expectation was that you were ready for Freshman writing. It’s also different in a quarter versus a semester; those five weeks are a big deal. Having said that, I’ve taught basically the same thing in 10 weeks as I now do in 15. Go figure.

    Have you seen the class for paper for the Basic Writing section for next year’s CCCC in St. Louis? I’m thinking of submitting something. Here’s the link to the google doc just in case. Deadline is this Friday.

  2. This is probably the key to ReadyWriting’s post:

    “(Again, because of low enrollment) was able to treat each student as an individual, regardless of test scores. ”

    I think that with a smaller class size one semester could be sufficient (for native speakers/writers). A class of twelve students in a workshop atmosphere might be able to get their skills up to snuff.
    Unfortunately, such an approach does not seem to be economically viable at this time.

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