Saturday, June 27, 2015

What did they think was going to happen?

Only one in four students who place into noncredit remedial courses will earn a degree within eight years of enrolling. Last year, Florida's legislature came up with the solution: allow students to skip remedial classes if they want to.

A year later, the astonishing results are in: Enrollment in remedial courses is down, and failure rates are up.
Hunter Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University, said he's not certain what legislators expected would happen. “This isn't rocket science. If students don't have the skills to complete a college course and you let them take the course, there's a likelihood they'll fail the course,” he said. “What did they expect?”

I suspect that it's even worse than it looks. How many of this year's instructors do you suppose looked at their final gradebooks, and thought, I'd better curve the grades. I can't fail everybody.

The advantage of this approach, on the other hand, is undeniable. Unlike resource-intensive programs that actually work, handing at-risk students just enough rope is practically free.


  1. What was Twain's line about idiots, legislators, and practice runs, again?

    Still, I'd have thought that anyone who could be convinced that pi can't be changed by enacting a law would understand that this couldn't actually work.


    Be on the lookout for hexagonal circles hiding in the everglades.

  2. Florida's legislature came up with the solution: allow students to skip remedial classes if they want to.

    Oh, Gog, no. Oh no. Why? Why, whywhywhy the fuckety fucky fucking FUCK WHY?

    What this is, I can't even . . . just . . . no. Just no.

  3. Replies
    1. And why the legislatures want to get rid of that too.

    2. Under the logic demonstrated here, having all courses taught by adjunct faculty whose re-hiring is dependent on students receiving high passing grades makes excellent sense.

      It's great for the economy....just not this country's economy.

  4. Could some of the failure to enroll be due to the names of the courses? Some students may not want to have on their transcript a course that seems to indicate that they cannot even read, even if that is in fact the case. The same courses under more positive names that imply less ignorance may work better. For instance, I would call math courses "refresher" courses out of respect for any older students who may have to relearn the material rather than finally "develop" at their age.

    As a matter of fact, at any age, the word "developmental" may sound demeaning, as if it implied some sort of mental disability. Don't you think it sounds like "retarded"?

    1. Sure, some of the problem could be due to the stigma of the course name. Nevertheless, the main problem is that people who don't know a subject are incapable of judging how much they know of a subject. Dunning-Kruger Effect. Letting them opt out of prerequisite courses is a recipe for disaster, same as letting toddlers drive their own schoolbus. We could call the courses "kittens and puppies" and the snowflakes still wouldn't take them, because they already know everything.

    2. There could also be other considerations. For instance, not having to pay for the developmental courses, or paying only a nominal fee, would help. Students may also have to maintain a minimum course load in order to maintain full time status, and that status may be needed for reasons such as financial aid eligibility. If those courses don't count, of course the students don't want to take them.

      Moreover, the students may not necessarily lack all the skills taught in the developmental course, or they may be able to relearn quickly what they used to know, if they had some previous exposure to the material.

      Perhaps the college could indicate what exactly the students may want to learn informally, on their own time. Maybe even some sources for that learning, such as books, Web sites and online lectures. Based on what will be taught in the credit course or on the developmental course that they may not formally take, students could perhaps learn the basics that way, but they may need to know what exactly to learn. It may not be the ideal solution, but it could help. It is also possible that, once presented with such information and allowed to look at it at home, some students would realize that they are better off just taking the developmental course. Whatever the case, they would be able to make an informed decision instead of simply being forced to take a course or allowed to skip it without fully realizing why they need it.

    3. Monica, these are not bad suggestions. But they require funding. The entire justification for cutting those courses was to save the state money.

      First, catch your legislators...

      We have a similar problem at my (private) SLAC. Doesn't matter what we call the remedial courses; we don't have the staff to teach them, and the students would have to pay for them if we did or we'd go belly-up.

    4. Yes, I'm sure that's what the legislators were thinking.

      Seriously, though, I do see your point, particularly about cost. As tuition goes ever up, who isn't going to try to save (more than) a few bucks by skipping an optional course? And the presentation of the courses probably needs to be handled with a little dignity, though I don't think anyone seriously wanted to call it "NumberZ fer BonhedZ".

      On the other hand, autodidacticism seems to be a lot less common than many people like to believe. If everyone really did learn well on their own, then public libraries would have driven colleges out of business a century ago (and MOOCs wouldn't be quietly fading into a niche market). "Flipped classrooms" are built on the idea of students learning on their own, but they seem to need a lot more structure than regular lectures, and certainly more than simply indicating what the students may want to informally learn on their own time.

      Or as CM is so fond of saying, if it's little, we need to say it's little, and then we can work with the students to make it bigger...

      Um.. wait, that metaphor didn't turn out quite the way I planned.

  5. OK, I'm willing to believe this is a very bad idea where math is concerned, since math tends to be sequential and cumulative. But I taught developmental writing for several years, and there's a different set of statistics I'd like to see: of the students who did enroll in the developmental English courses back when they were required to do so, how many of them eventually passed their first shot at the college-level course with a C or higher? Because, honestly, a 50% pass rate at the English 101 level sounds about average, or even good, for this student population, especially if they're only counting the student's first shot at the course.

    1. Which raises the question why so many students who were perfectly capable of passing the college-level course were nevertheless advised to take developmental English. It could be because, concretely, the evaluation must have been one writing sample they had to produce under controlled conditions. Maybe they weren't inspired that day, but during the course, and with some of the work being done at home, they managed to produce more satisfactory work.

    2. Porpentine, a 50% pass rate does sound impressive for students who didn't qualify to be in the class, but I think it depends on the department. A (now-retired) English department chair of my acquaintance once confided that to get the lowest passing grade in their English 101 course, all a student had to do was "warm a seat." I suspect that, faced with the prospect of failing students wholesale and getting a talk (or worse) from their administration, some of the Florida instructors employed this standard.

    3. "Which raises the question why so many students who were perfectly capable of passing the college-level course were nevertheless advised to take developmental English."

      That's an interesting question. Statisticians would call that a Type II Error, or "false negative", i.e., the student was ready for the college-level course, but the test didn't pick up in it. Perhaps you'd like to suggest feasible ways to reduce such errors.

      It is reasonable to question the validity of the placement test. That the test occurs in one sitting is potentially problematic. However, people who have trouble bringing their "A game" (assuming they have one) in one sitting are more likely to repeat that trouble at other sittings. And so we arrive at "during the course, and with some of the work being done at home, they managed to produce more satisfactory work." This is a good outcome of having taken the course.

      Two things are necessary to consistently demonstrate competency: 1) content knowledge and 2) ability to apply it whenever called upon. That a remedial course might result in improvement in item 2 far more than in item 1 is not necessarily a bad thing.

    4. But the very evaluation of writing skills is highly subjective. Besides, some people tend to perform poorly when they are being asked to write an essay on a random topic at 8 AM. On the other hand, if they were to post comments here at their leisure, their writing skills would probably be deemed more than sufficient to get them into a college writing course. It might actually be a good idea to use this kind of writing sample instead of forcing students to produce a writing sample on demand on a topic they know nothing about.

    5. I'll let the writing instructors weigh in on the subjectivity of their evaluations.

      If being able to write coherently on a random topic at 8 AM is a reliable indicator of future success in college-level English, then those who cannot demonstrate such competency on entry to the course are at risk of not passing. I know for sure that I had to demonstrate competency at such things to pass all my high school English classes.

      With the suggestion of using short, blog comment-like writing instead, what you're talking about is alternative ways of demonstrating competency. In that case, how about the quality of a student's Twitter output? If that could predict readiness for the course as reliably as the 8AM writing exercise, then it would be worth considering. I strongly suspect the competencies demonstrated in the more lengthy exercise and in the 140-character tweet are related but nonetheless significantly different, and the blog comment is somewhere in between.

    6. of the students who did enroll in the developmental English courses back when they were required to do so, how many of them eventually passed their first shot at the college-level course with a C or higher?

      A good comparison is given in the linked article: students who were recommended for the developmental courses and who opted in, vs. those who opted out. Overall, pass rate was about 71% in the former and 55% in the latter, but that doesn't tell us stats for just English 101

    7. I was talking about writing full paragraphs, not 140 characters or less. Regardless, the fact remains that for reading and writing, the current evaluation method is so flawed that half the students recommended for developmental reading or writing but who choose to skip it nevertheless pass. One can only wonder how many more would pass, if they too had the courage to ignore the recommendation.

      Math placement tests seem more objective, since one knows or does not know how to solve problems and students tend to fail in greater numbers if they skip the developmental courses. The problem is with reading and writing evaluations, which turn out wrong in so many cases. How does one even evaluate reading at the college level, for example? It's not as if the students couldn't actually read or didn't know all the letters. At least, I would hope not.

    8. You were talking about "[writing] comments here at their leisure" instead of the significantly more substantial 8AM assessment. As long as we're relaxing that much, might as well relax all the way to a tweet. If you agree that 140 characters isn't enough, then you agree that there's a line somewhere between the full assignment and the tweet where the reliability of the assessment is compromised. I submit that writing of the length of blog comments -- full paragraphs though it may include -- is still not a substantial enough exercise.

      Half the students who skipped the developmental course did pass, but only at a C or perhaps better; we need the full breakdown of scores for the groups who did and didn't take the developmental course to make better conclusions. But here's what I see at my joint: students who pass their first term at only the C level are more often than not compromised for the rest of their days in the curriculum and might not even make the minimum GPA to get the degree. The ones who actually fail early on and are forced to remediate often do better in the long run. So, "just passing" may not be a worthy enough goal or a good enough metric, and remediation can serve a purpose beyond just getting students over that low bar.

    9. If just passing is not good enough, maybe they should take more writing courses afterwards, but credit courses. It's not the extra practice that bothers me. It's the idea of taking a real, paid course mandated or highly recommended by the university without even getting credit for it. That, and the stigma of the developmental status.

    10. While the problems with basing any course of action on the outcome of a single test are obvious, I don't think Monica's argument is strengthened by throwing the "8 AM" factor into the mix. In the real world, time of day can't be used as an excuse. If you need to produce a report/an equipment repair/an interview/a lunch menu by noon, and you can't summon your A game at 8:00, you're going to be in trouble and your boss will not want to hear about your not being a "morning person." OPH's earlier comment about being able to rely on your competency whenever it's called upon—not just when it's convenient for you—is right on the money.

    11. What about 6 AM? I said 8 because, even though I'm working, I'm in the fortunate position of being able to wake up at 8, spend plenty of time in the bathroom and still get to work by 9. That also explains why I found it rather funny that someone would be in bed by 10 PM or even a couple of minutes before midnight. I realize it feels less early when you are used to waking up earlier and actually being somewhere by 8.

    12. The actual time is irrelevant. If you can't write/calculate/cook/pound nails at a level of basic competence when someone needs you to, your competence is not what it ought to be. Which, in terms of college courses, translates into: if your basic writing and math skills are so weak that you can't rely on them at all times, they need some extra work.

    13. I think the concern over credits and financial aid has merit. Where the underprepared student's program could accommodate it, as an alternative to the sequence of ENG 99 (the non-credit, developmental course) and ENG 101, I'd support considering e.g. a more "attractive" full-credit sequence ENG 101.5A/101.5B, which could contain developmental content but bring the student beyond 101 with a far better chance of earning B's both terms than were the student to skip 99 and dive straight into 101 and 102. But I am at risk of ultracrepidarianism and thus leave further discussion to those with experience in this particular domain.

      Regarding stigma and cost, we might ask the 5 of 10 students who skipped ENG 99 and who failed 101 for their thoughts about the stigma of an F on their transcript and the cost of having to repeat a course. And lest we forget, taking and failing a course for which you were not prepared does necessarily, in itself, render you more prepared to pass it on the retake, so even greater expense, stigma, loss of time, etc. may ensue. (And now I am reminded of a recent event apropos these themes; time to write it up and post it.)

      As to the 8AM thing, I had thought that detail was inserted for verisimilitude, but now see it runs deeper and wider. I recall finding it slightly funny that Monica had found it "slightly funny" that others would adopt a schedule different from hers, and I am further intrigued by her apparent doubling down. In the "real world" and in academia, even if it isn't when the majority might begin their working day, 8AM just isn't so out of the ordinary that anybody of minimal worldliness should be surprised by it. My undergrad institution offered classes from 8AM through 9PM, and my current gig may have me in front of the class anytime within that range, with one committee meeting at 7AM every month. These may fall outside my preferences for doing certain jobs at certain times, but one does what one must; through practice, I became proficient at adapting to the demands of the situation, since demanding that the situation adapt to me is far less likely to be successful.

    14. Oops, "taking and failing a course for which you were not prepared does NOT necessarily, in itself, render you more prepared to pass it on the retake", but you probably got my drift.

  6. "students may not necessarily lack all the skills taught in the developmental course, or they may be able to relearn quickly what they used to know, if they had some previous exposure to the material."

    For some students, that could be true. For many, it clearly is not, or the pass rates would be higher.

    "Perhaps the college could indicate what exactly the students may want to learn informally, on their own time."

    The college has begun that process by informing students they failed the placement tests and/or by requiring ^H^H^H recommending that the students take specific developmental courses. Since the college is not paying the students to be there as employees, "their own time" is pretty much 24/7/365, and somewhere in there they could -- oh, I don't know -- take a developmental course designed by the college? The problem is that some students don't take their failure as convincing evidence in itself, and they need to be "sold", possibly by being presented with a more exact list of course ingredients such that they can make an "informed" decision to do what has to be done, as if the college were itself misinformed when recommending they take the developmental courses.

    One place the students can find out exactly what they don't know (and thus NEED to learn) could be in reviewing their failed placement exams. But here's the rub: the Florida law made taking the exams optional for recent high school grads, which "contradicts popular ideas held by community college leaders around the country. They include: Students don't do optional and often make the wrong choices about courses; many high school graduates are not ready for college-level work; and students who start credit-bearing courses without adequate preparation face long odds of graduating." (Source.)

    At my joint, students have the option of reviewing their exams in the departmental office. Those who are underperforming on midterm exams self-select into two groups: A) those who review their exams and B) those who don't. The As use information gleaned during the review to inform their need to reinforce specific content areas, revise their test-taking strategies, etc., and they quite often improve their scores and progress through the curriculum. The Bs do who knows what, and they quite often find themselves "invited to succeed at a later time", either by retaking the course or by starting over at a different institution.

    The type-B students will not take advantage of MOOCs, books, or any other learning that requires self-motovation. So the law that allows them to take a perceived path of least resistance (i.e., opting out of placement exams and/or developmental courses) actually ends up costing them more money and harming their chances for future success. Any solution that would reverse this trend would require funding, funding that could have been directed towards defraying the costs of the developmental courses had the law never been enacted.