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Why Acceleration Works

Students in a Math classroom

Principle 2: Enrollment in college-level math and English courses or course sequences aligned with the student’s program of study is the default placement for the vast majority of students.

In plain English, Principle 2 states that most students should be placed in credit-bearing college courses rather than developmental education course sequences, even when their placement scores indicate that they will need additional supports to succeed in college-level courses. This practice is referred to as acceleration because it shortens or eliminates entirely the time a student spends in developmental education and moves students into college-level courses as quickly as possible. Since skipping developmental education does not obviate the need for additional support if a student is indeed underprepared, I would like to unpack this principle and examine the supporting evidence. 

In working papers published in 2009 and 2010, an article in Economics of Education Review in 2010, an unpublished analysis of the Achieving the Dream data set cited in a recent book, Community College Research Center researchers have thoroughly studied the attrition at every level of the developmental education course sequence. Their groundbreaking analysis showed that a good number of students simply do not enroll in developmental education after having been assigned. Twenty-six percent of students referred to the lowest level of developmental math never show up for their first course. Assessing the opportunity cost, they leave. For those who do show up for the first class, only 16 percent complete the three-course sequence. Ultimately, only 8 percent of students referred to the lowest level developmental math complete the math gateway course. Surprisingly, 22 percent of students who complete one of the lower level math courses do not return for the next level course, and 4 percent do not enroll in the gateway course after completing the full sequence. Instead of enrolling in their first college-level course, they left, suggesting that even though they experienced some success, they simply could not go the distance. This research demonstrates that the traditional delivery model for developmental education takes too long. 

The Data on Acceleration 

The massive attrition between each course in the developmental education sequence provides a strong argument for acceleration. But there is a long way to go from acceleration to default placement in college-level courses with supports. So how did the Core Principles get here? A growing body of rigorous research found no effect from developmental education for students placing in a band beneath the placement cut scores. This research also found no evidence that taking more developmental courses produces better results for the least-prepared learners. Taken together, the research makes a compelling case for acceleration. 

Using a rigorous methodology called Regression Discontinuity to compare students who score just below and just above the placement cut score, the research found that while slight differences in their placement scores place some students in developmental education and others in college-level classes, they are essentially identical students with equal chances of earning a C or better in the gateway course. The differences in their scores can be chalked up to measurement error. 

One of the clearest illustrations of this research is found in a Community College Research Center paper that used data from a large urban community college system to study students who score between 40 and 50 on the Compass Algebra test.

Among Students Advancing Directly to College-Level Math: Success Rates by Placement Exam Score

Source: Community College Research Center 

Using a cut score of 45, under which students would be placed in remediation, the data show that students who score between 40 and 50 have an equal chance of earning a C or better in the gateway course. Clearly, a default placement in the gateway math course is the appropriate placement for students scoring between 40 and the cut score of 45. Even the “college ready” students, the band from 45-50, could likely benefit from embedded supports. 

We have established the basis for the recommendation for the default placement in college-level courses, but what about students who score significantly beneath the placement cut score? Is a default placement in a college-level course appropriate for them? Let’s consult the data.

Is Acceleration for Everyone? 

In studies that have examined lower cut scores, the analysis focused on the margin between the top-level and mid-level developmental education and the margin between mid-level and lower-level developmental education. These studies are not about success in the college-level gateway course; they ask, if a student is on the margin of a cut score between two different levels of developmental education, does taking an extra level of developmental education—three courses versus two courses, for instance—increase the student’s chances for success? 

For upper-level and mid-level developmental education, researchers examined cut scores as low as 29 on COMPASS pre-algebra/arithmetic. To examine the margin between mid-level and lower-level developmental education, researchers analyzed cut scores as low as 17 on COMPASS pre-algebra/arithmetic. In both cases, the studies found that students do not benefit from being placed in the lower levels of developmental education. More is not better. 

While this is an important finding and a strong argument for acceleration, it does not suggest that a default placement in a college-level course with supports is right for all students. 

So what should be done with students for whom the default placement is not appropriate? This question is addressed by Principle Four in the Core Principles, which is the subject of my next blog. 

This is the third in a series by Michael Collins. To read the fourth blog in this series, please click here

Read his statement on the release of the Core Principles.