Has California Found the Answer to More Equitable Developmental Education? - Higher Education

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Has California Found the Answer to More Equitable Developmental Education?

by DeShawn Preston

Developmental education (also known as remedial education) serves as a major barrier to a disproportionate number of Black and Brown students in higher education.

Dr. DeShawn Preston

More than 70 percent of Black students and 63 percent of Latino students at two-year institutions require some form of developmental education (DE). Four-year institutions fare only mildly better (likely due to selectivity), more than 50 percent of Black students and nearly 40 percent of Latino students require some form of DE.

Unfortunately, many of these students do not make it past their DE courses or the introductory courses needed to advance in college. This leaves many would-be college graduates financially burdened, psychologically discouraged and more often than not with diminished opportunities for professional mobility.

With less than desirable outcomes for students and a staggering $6.7 billion annual price tag, it comes as no surprise that many states and institutions of higher education are seeking solutions to better address DE issues. Over the past 30 years, state policies have either eliminated, reduced, or shifted where and how DE is offered. Many students of color have likely missed out or “stopped out” from higher education due to policies implemented in many states that address the prohibitive costs alone rather than the residual impact on students.

However, more recently the California Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education unanimously passed the AB 705 bill. This policy requires all community colleges to prioritize high school grades as an important indicator for placement.

Often students are required to take DE based on hard cut-off scores from standardized tests and placement tests.  Through Bill AB 705, institutions still will consider those test scores but will weigh them less heavily in favor of high school grades, which will hold more weight than in times past.

This bill aims to reduce the burden of performing well on a test as the singular opportunity for students to get into credit-bearing courses (unless those students are highly unlikely to succeed in them). This policy may prove to be a step in the right direction toward attaining more equitable developmental education for all.

From an equity standpoint this bill benefits students of color, as research indicates they do not perform as well on standardized tests, which do not consider students’ test-taking ability, stress levels, or social conditions at the time of the exams. The strong consideration of grades is also important, as extensive research has shown them as more effective indicators of overall student success in college. Similarly, an evaluation of a student’s high school profile, including both their academic and extracurricular accomplishments, is a more accurate predictor of potential and subsequent success in Math and English rather than exam scores alone.

Assembly woman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, the bill’s author, said that “by helping students move through college at a rate that matches their potential, AB 705 will allow students to graduate faster and increase their likelihood for success.”

In a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation titled, “Untold Barriers for Black students in Higher Education: Placing Race at the Center of Developmental Education,” I suggest it will take bills like these and more to yield the outcomes that are needed most.

Stakeholders should also:

  • Use HBCUs as a model based on their reputation for successfully educating historically marginalized students
  • Fund and support DE innovation and improvement at HBCUs and MSIs as a means to reduce pre-college learning gaps for students of color;
  • Ensure that DE courses are varied and designed to meet the needs of differing levels of student preparedness;
  • Provide a culturally responsive curriculum within DE; and (5) enhance the coordination & communication between K-12 & higher education so that learning gaps may be addressed more expeditiously.

Bill AB 705 has the potential to change the landscape of DE, and provide a more equitable approach for students of color and low-income students. According to the Center for American Progress students of color are overrepresented in community and technical colleges.

The implementation of this bill will have a tremendous impact on students of color by not only limiting the number of students required to take DE, but also providing more opportunities for students of color to gain access to four-year institutions. Also, this will allow students to progress through college at a faster rate and increase completion rates, diminishing the number of situations where students use financial aid for developmental education courses for which they gain no credit but pay full price.

More importantly, this does not take away DE as a whole. Previous policies implemented by many states fail to address the needs of all students in higher education. Bill AB 705 not only takes into consideration students who may benefit from taking DE, but also provides opportunities for students who may only need limited to no additional academic assistance in order to bypass DE.

Students of color are gaining access to higher education like never before. Yet, their completion rates have remained stagnant in large part due to their overrepresentation in DE, which suggests that DE is more than just a higher education issue; it is an issue of race and class and should be considered when identifying solutions fixed on producing better student learning outcomes, diminishing the expense involved, and expediting the time to degree completion.

The solutions that stakeholders implement stand to either negatively or positively affect access and the trajectory of students of color in higher education.  Bill AB 705 has the potential to change the landscape of higher education along with the aforementioned recommendations for all. If this bill proves to be effective with community colleges in California, other states and institutions (especially four-year institutions) should glean lessons learned and emulate this policy.

If policymakers and institutions are serious about being poised for the next generation of learners, (as they should all experience an influx of students of color in the near future given the projected shifts in demographics) these changes made in tandem hold the best chance for a higher education that supports all students and ultimately positions them for success.

Dr. DeShawn Preston serves as the Southern Education Foundation’s Higher Education Research Fellow, where he analyzes issues pertaining to developmental education, advancing educational opportunities for historically marginalized groups, and determining how institutional effectiveness may be best supported among institutions that serve them most. 

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