It’s a frustrating non-sequitur for a state known as a national education leader: the large number of Massachusetts college students who enroll in developmental courses after graduating from what is arguably the best-performing K-12 system in the country. Too many students, to their surprise and dismay, discover that they are ill-prepared for the rigors of college-level coursework and become stuck in the swampland of remediation. For every 100 Massachusetts community college students enrolled in a developmental math course in 2013, only 24 completed a credit-bearing math course by 2015. Forty-percent of them never made it through remediation at all. The implications for college completion are clearly evident; equally disturbing is the disproportionate harm done to low-income students and students of color.
Fixing developmental education became my top priority when I arrived in Massachusetts as senior deputy commissioner for academic affairs; this emphasis has continued during my tenure as commissioner. Massachusetts learned valuable lessons from other states but also needed to customize our own road map. With no edict from the legislature, collaboration among the campuses and the engagement of faculty were essential to implementing change.
Massachusetts developed using a three-pronged approach to student success — multiple measures placement, corequisite support and math pathways — that allowed for extensive campus experimentation and choice. This approach was developed jointly by faculty and administrators working through a series of statewide convenings and recommendations from several statewide working groups.
Rather than eliminate remediation altogether, as other states have done, our campuses were free to develop multiple placement measures, shift to corequisite models and/or develop math pathways aligned with a student’s major and career aspirations. In December 2018, the board of higher education approved the use of high school GPA to place students directly into college-level math and English courses. This month, the board is expected to approve a new common assessment policy that will replace the original 1998 policy mandating use of Accuplacer across the system.
In other votes, the board endorsed campus efforts to establish multiple math pathways, such as math for STEM versus non-STEM majors or math for education majors. Utilization of the corequisite model — resulting in fewer traditional, stand-alone developmental courses — is becoming the norm.
The decentralized nature of our approach was not without drawbacks and has had its share of vocal critics. It was difficult, in the first few years, to draw apples-to-apples comparisons to gauge which interventions were working best, given that campuses were hardly proceeding in lock-step fashion. Some math faculty worried about lowering standards. “In the long-term, the 2.7 GPA standards for college readiness will either dumb down the curriculum or lead to high failure rates in real college-level math courses,” argued one state university math professor in a local magazine. “And at-risk students will be encouraged to select majors with minimal quantitative requirements and effectively be tracked away from STEM or other careers with even modest mathematical elements.”
Despite such warnings, our first evaluation released in October 2018 showed signs of promise. A study by the UMass Donahue Institute indicated that “students who entered college in fall 2016 (during the pilot) were no more or less likely than similar students who entered college in fall 2013 (prior to pilot) to take or complete a college-level math course within two years.” High school GPA appeared to be as likely an indicator of student success as the Accuplacer test score.
The department staff will soon ask the board of higher education to set goals for increasing the percentage of students who successfully complete a college-level math course within their first year of enrollment. Reaching these goals won’t just be important for students, but a point of pride for all those in our system who contributed to transformational change from the ground up.